Sunday, November 22, 2015

Neil Young: Bluenote Cafe

Counting studio material, live recordings, compilations, work with other bands, Neil  Young has delivered over 60 albums to date.  That is an amazing number compared with most musicians. But really it is to be expected in this case.  Neil is still churning out vibrant new material as he turns 70.  There have been numerous times when he has released more than one album in a single year. His latest effort is from his Archives project.  It features one of the many different flavors of Neil that came out in the 1980's.

Bluenote Cafe is a two CD live concert set featuring the best performances while on tour with the Bluenotes in 1987-1988. The set contains seven previously unreleased songs which is true music to the ear of any long-time Rustie like myself.  I have heard a few of these new songs before on the numerous bootleg live performances of Neil in my collection.  But to hear them and the rest of these tunes performed for the first time with such passion, accomplishment, and good fidelity is a real treat.

I pre-ordered the album from amazon and paid an extra $5 to have it delivered to my home on the day of its release. That way, even though Jennifer and I live in the middle of nowhere, we were able to listen to some previously unheard Neil at the same time most every other Rustie in the world did. I received it last Friday, the official day of release, just in time for Jennifer and I to spend the weekend enjoying it. 

And enjoy it we did.  I had only modest expectations but was pleasantly surprised. The bulk of the material comes from Neil's This Note's for You album, a bluesy/jazzy version of Neil featuring Old Black and a solid horn section of three saxophones, a trombone, and two trumpets.  This Note's for You has an interesting urban vibe to it but I would not rank it as one of my favorite Neil efforts.  Like much of his repertoire, it is an acquired taste but worthy of listening to because it is so unique - like other Neil albums from the 1980's.  

Earlier in that decade he ventured into techno, rockabilly, and mainstream country music. Shifting into jazz-infused blues completed an experimental decade which saw him being sued by his then-record label for "not producing Neil Young music"; something that still makes me smile today. Neil doesn't follow anyone's expectations - record companies, critics, or even his own fans.  Which is really what the song "This Note's for You" is all about, as a rant against consumerist commercialization. 

But as different as this music sounds, it is nevertheless rooted in basic Neil Young, which is one reason that law suit was ridiculous.  For example, Crazy Horse, his long-time garage band supports the horns on two songs.  Billy Talbot handles the bass with Ralph Molina on drums while Frank "Poncho" Sampedro trades in his electric guitar for keyboards through the album. The majority of the songs feature Rick Rosas on bass and Chad Cromwell on drums, two musicians that worked with Neil on several of his projects. 

The rest of the Bluenotes are these six wonderful horns.  On the studio album the music has a somewhat mechanical feel to it, like the band is imitating the music. There are 3-4 nice tunes but mostly it is interesting mediocrity - which is why my expectations were sort of low for this Performance Series release.  But the truth is, like a lot of Neil's stuff, the same material often sounds amazing live.  This release mostly exceeds the quality of the studio album with the added treat of getting to listen to seven tunes that were not previously available through "official" (ie. quality recording) channels.

The opportunity to listen to this music for the first time along with the rest of the world on the day of its release, delivered to my doorstep in the middle of nowhere, was just a rich experience.  Jennifer and I enjoyed the album several times last weekend and again this weekend.  It is a wonderful addition to my collection and it makes me so appreciative of how fortunate Jennifer and I are in our lives.  A blast from the past enriches my present in the best kind of way.

This Performance Series release contains 21 songs from several different venues recorded in 1987-1988.  The feel is a superb fusion of blues, jazz, and rock.  The This Note's for You material (mixed with the previously unreleased songs) comes out far more solid and energized in this live concert presentation.

This is not to say the two CD set doesn't have its weaker moments.  Generally speaking, however, much of the new material is better than I expected. "Bad News Comes to Town" (a different, bootleg performance from the same tour) is the best of breed here and a real surprise for me. The band absolutely blows this tune away in a blistering performance with plenty of space for Old Black, an amazingly inspiring trombone, and the alto saxophone to be featured in solo. How many great trombone solos do you hear these days? To think no Neil fan has heard this song in a fine recording quality until last Friday makes it all the more special.

Neil mostly plays Old Black on the album. On several songs, however, he is featured with just his harmonica amidst the rest of the band and its big horn sound. The album offers fantastic versions of several songs. "Don't Take Your Love Away from Me", "This Note's for You", "Ten Men Working", and "One Thing" are all the best versions of these songs I have ever heard. Very strong playing with a lot of guitar and horn solos, the backbone coming from the horn section. Solid, noteworthy performances.

"Ordinary People" features Pancho on piano and it is better than the studio version which was not released until 2007's Chrome Dreams II, about 20 years after it was written.  Once again the horns are amazing.  This  song satisfies with another particularly great trombone solo. The Blue collar lyrics are a bit of classic Neil.

Most of the other songs, some previously unreleased, some studio stuff, are not that special but they are good enough to sustain the unique vibe of this tour, alive and listenable.  This is a very distinctive kind of Neil outside his comfort zone and being totally comfortable with that.

Neil most clearly grounds all of this lightning uniqueness into his fundamental body of work with an upbeat big band rendition of "On the Way Home."  While this is by no means the best version of this song from early in Neil's career, it is the most distinctive and jazzy playing you can find. Giving this song this unique treatment is a wonder. This is accompanied by another basic Neil tune that strikes at the very heart of his prolific creativity. The set ends with a massive, highly energized, driving without ceasing 19-minute version of "Tonight's the Night", the title song from a highly-regarded essential aspect of Neil.

That crazy finish to a classic cornerstone of Neil as an artist demonstrates that even though this jazz-blues infused music sounds so distant from the classic Neil, it is nevertheless rooted in the source of all Neil's other multiple personality styles.  I remember being disappointed in the studio album when it came out but hearing this music live and sustained and fresh again and passionately performed is the best kind of unexpected delight. This set makes great party music and reveals a multifaceted genius at work.

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