The one thing that is certain, is the long-awaited arrival of the first installment of several projected Archives boxed-sets back in 2009 – slow train coming that it was – certainly proved to be worth the wait.
But for diehard Neil Young fans, the real fun in finally getting there came in the slow, but steady trickle of live recordings leading up to that opus. Among its many treasures, Neil Young’s Archives Performance Series (or NYAPS) has thus far yielded several legendary live acoustic performances (Massey Hall 1971, and Live At Canterbury House 1968 being chief among them), as well as the blistering amps-turned-up-to-eleven performance heard on Crazy Horse At The Fillmore 1970.
With a similarly timed series of live recordings from the vaults serving as the assumed prequel to the next volume of Neil Young’s Archives apparently now well under way – well, the hits, as they once liked to say in the old-school music business, they just keep on coming.
And in many ways, Bluenote Café may be the best volume yet from this amazing series. If nothing else, it is certainly among the most interesting, both historically and musically.
Bluenote Café captures Neil Young at one of the more pivotal crossroads of his career. Touring behind the album This Note’s For You (best known for how the controversial title track railed against the then still relatively new concept of corporate sponsorship of rock and roll), Neil Young was just coming off the bizarre “lost eighties” period that most fans remember for his ill-fated association with Geffen Records, and for the bizarre series of genre experiments (Trans, Everybody’s Rockin’, Old Ways) that nearly derailed his career for good.
As his first record returning back to the more friendly folks at Reprise, This Note’s For You was also the last of these genre-bending recordings – a big-band blues album.
It also was a surprise hit, largely because of the controversial video for the title track, that MTV was more or less forced into playing (despite their initial reluctance). Neil Young’s next album – 1989’s Freedom, the classic that jump-started his 1990s artistic and commercial resurrection from the dead, was still a few months down the road. But you can hear much of the explosiveness of that period already percolating here.
Much of what is heard on Bluenote Café reflects the semi-forced sounding feel of the last of those 1980’s vanity projects – the big horn section sounds clunky at times, and when Neil Young is playing the role of a blue man singing the whites, it never feels completely natural. Even so, Neil Young sounds more relaxed here than on any of the other officially released live recordings from the much-maligned “lost eighties” period (save for perhaps parts of what is heard on A Treasure, the 2011 NYAPS live recording that captures Neil’s 1980’s country phase).
But Neil Young’s guitar playing throughout this recording is absolutely incendiary, foreshadowing the explosiveness of what was still to come on Freedom, Ragged Glory, Mirror Ball and the rest of his improbable 1990s run of amazing albums. The main draw for fans here will be pre-release versions of Freedom’s “Crime In The City” and the opus “Ordinary People” (which was finally officially released two decades later on 2007’s Chrome Dreams II). Despite the occasionally forced quality of some of the bluesier stuff, the band – particularly those horns – sound tight as a drum.
In short, this is some really great shit.