Neil Young has always sounded simultaneously young and old. His creaky voice conveys innocence, but it also feels wise and nostalgic, as if its fault lines developed over centuries. That’s why, in his mid-twenties, Young could get away with singing that he was a lot like an old man– it sure sounded like the truth. On most of Young’s recordings, the balance between age and youth skews toward the former. He experienced so much so early– reaching success at age 21 with Buffalo Springfield, then quickly launching a prolific solo career– that wisdom was branded on him immediately. By the time people even knew who Young was, he sounded more like a wily veteran than a green youngster.
Sugar Mountain: Live at Canterbury House 1968 offers a chance to hear Young with the scales tipped the other direction. It’s taken from his first two post-Buffalo Springfield solo acoustic concerts, performed in a ministry on the University of Michigan campus. Unheard until now, these shows have gained legend due to one song from them, “Sugar Mountain”, popping up on B-sides and the Decade compilation. Made just weeks before the release of his self-titled debut and only a few days short of his 23rd birthday, this recording reveals an eager, nervous version of Young– a version that existed briefly, soon gone in the flash of his subsequent solo success.
Not that he was uncomfortable on stage. Young had played to bigger crowds as part of Buffalo Springfield, whose success he gently mocks in between songs, scoffing at their huge amps and, as he puts it, “ra-ta-ta-ta” stage act. But he had yet to prove himself alone, and the weight of a public solo debut adds a little more quiver to his voice, a little more self-deprecation to his rambling stories.
In fact, Young was reportedly terrified, in part because he feared he didn’t have enough material to sustain a full performance. Of the 13 songs included here, nearly half were previously recorded with Buffalo Springfield. To compensate, Young fills each gap with jittery, candid banter. “Nothing I say up here is a lie,” he claims with a stutter. “I never ever have told a lie onstage.” His true stories are consistently endearing, covering everything from taking “diet pills” to get through his previous life as a bookstore clerk, to writing Buffalo Springfield songs while stuck at a diner at 4 a.m., to learning what residuals are and buying a classic car with them.
The songs on Sugar Mountain are delivered with similar earnestness and vulnerability. After an introducer admits that the audience is larger than expected, Young offers a fragile version of “On the Way Home”, his timid chords and cracking voice besting the speedier version found on the final Buffalo Springfield album, Last Time Around. Later, he sings “The Loner” in a bashful near-whisper, and the delicate guitar of “If I Could Have Her Tonight” alternates between approach and retreat. As things progress, Young’s confidence grows, culminating in the “The Old Laughing Lady”, which hits a rushing peak of forceful strums.
Musically, Sugar Mountain isn’t Young’s best live solo album. On that count, it’s outshined by another recent archival release, the Massey Hall performance that happened three years later, and sounds much bolder and wider-ranging. But as a portrait of this ageless artist as a truly young man, Sugar Mountain is an invaluable document– and a pretty compelling one, too.
From BBC Music
With Old Shakey finally opening up the vaults ahead of his huge 10-disc Archive box with the amazingly good Massey Hall and Filmore East (with Crazy Horse) concert recordings, Sugar Mountain has a lot to live up to. Luckily it easily passes muster, making up for musical shortcomings with sheer historical fascination.
With Buffalo Springfield already a fleeting halcyon dream, Young headed into the studio with Jack Nitzsche and David Briggs in the late summer of 1968 to record his debut album. This gig, recorded at The Canterbury House in Ann Arbor, captures Young a mere couple of days before its release running through new numbers as well as the cream of his Springfield songs. It’s these tapes that supplied the version of the title track that we all know and love from his Decade compilation. Written on the cusp of adulthood, Sugar Mountain (the song) is a key glimpse into the mind of a man for whom childlike innocence and hard-bitten careerism could be converse sides of the same creative coin. It’s a wide-eyed and cheery performance, only marred by one composition – the interminable last Trip To Tulsa which always kept his first solo album becoming a true classic.
For the more clued-up Young watchers it’s fascinating to hear an early version of the beautiful Birds (finally to appear on After The Goldrush, two years later) as well as what appears to be Neil actually discovering the melody to Winterlong in front of the audience! Very much of its time, the gig is peppered with rambling interludes about cars, working in bookstores (with the aid of chemicals) and open tunings.
What’s also intriguing is how Young, obviously trying to reinvent himself as an acoustic troubadour, refers to himself in the past tense as a ”lead guitarist”. Within a couple of months he’d hooked up with garage hippies, Crazy Horse, and was back at the electric coal face, turning into one of the finest guitarists of his era. Sugar Mountain is therefore both a valuable insight into the man’s early defining moments but also a chance to reappraise the material from his much-maligned first album. Essential.
On May 5, 1968, in Long Beach, California, Neil Young played his final show with Buffalo Springfield, a band he’d already left and re-joined at least twice. “I didn’t have a clue what I was going to do next,” he told me in 1989. This seemed unlikely. For someone with only a vague notion of what he was going to do, he moved decisively, quickly hiring Elliot Roberts as his manager. Roberts – on his way to becoming one of the most powerful people in the American music business – had worked briefly with the Springfield earlier in their last disputatious year together, before being sacked by Neil for playing golf when he should have been attending to the group’s multiple whims. Roberts now signed his new client to Reprise, where apart from a short and unhappy liaison with Geffen Records, Young would remain for the rest of his career. That summer, Neil started work on his first solo album.
The next step was to get Young in front of an audience, to test their reactions. In November, with the release of his debut solo album, Neil Young, now looming, two shows were booked, at Canterbury House, part of the University Of Michigan. The gigs were recorded on two-track tape, and exactly 40 years later finally see the light of the proverbial day as Sugar Mountain.
I think if I’d been there on either night, my first reaction would have been something akin to shock. From what I knew of him at the time, Young was by reputation surly and remote, inclined towards fractious discord. In pictures, he had a tendency to look sullen, a moody loner. What a flattening surprise, then, to hear him here sounding so, well, goofy, I suppose you’d say. Ten of the 23 tracks listed on Sugar Mountain are spoken word introductions, rambling asides, random observations, often hilarious anecdotes delivered in a youthfully high-pitched voice that he at one point makes fun of himself.
This awe-shucks folksiness is thoroughly disarming, as no doubt intended. Down the years, Young’s played this part to serial perfection – the straw-chewing backwoods philosopher, the bucolic savant, plain-speaking, daffy but wise, Jimmy Stewart on his way to Washington as Mr Deeds. “I never plan anything,” he says at one point, sounding baffled by his present circumstance in front all these people, some of them calling out for Buffalo Springfield songs he thought no one had even heard. But how true, you wonder, is this?
Among the Buffalo Springfield songs for which he was perhaps best known were elaborate patchworks like ‘Mr Soul’, ‘Expecting To Fly’ and ‘Broken Arrow’ (all featured here). These were post-Pepper sonic collages, painstakingly assembled during long hours of over-dubbing in the studio, which was also how much of Neil Young had been produced, a process that had left him by his own admission disenchanted. For these Canterbury Hall shows, though, there clearly would be no attempt to replicate the unreleased album’s dense arrangements, orchestral flourishes and gospel backing vocals.
This is just Neil, his voice and guitar and 13 songs, six from his Buffalo Springfield days, four from the forthcoming album, the unrecorded ‘Sugar Mountain’, an exquisite version of ‘Birds’, a song that would appear on After The Goldrush, and a brief snippet of Winterlude that barely merits a track listing of its own. In virtually every instance, these solo versions are preferable to the originals, performed with a singular confidence that suggests he may already have realised how dated when it came out aspects of Neil Young would sound, the stereo panning and overlaying of studio effects giving it an ornate fussiness that sat uneasily in the mutating musical climate of the late 60s.
What’s striking here is how cleverly Young by now had grasped the fundamental changes in American music essayed already by Dylan and The Band on John Wesley Harding and Music From Big Pink. The summer of 1968 had seen the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King. A season of riot had left cities on fire across the republic and Nixon was in the White House. Dark times were getting darker. It was as if the only legitimate response to more complicated times was a new kind of simplicity. And so the precocious psychedelic technician of those Springfield epics is calculatedly recast as a soulful solo voyager whose songs spoke without undue adornment of shared apprehensions, collective uncertainties.
On songs like ‘Sugar Mountain’, ‘If I Could Have Her Tonight’ and ‘I’ve Been Waiting For You’, his vulnerability is something tangible and universal. On a quartet of great Springfield songs included here – ‘Out Of My Mind’, ‘Mr Soul’, ‘Expecting To Fly’, ‘Broken Arrow’ – he expresses among other things an uneasy discomfort with fame and its hollow trappings that places him on the side of the people he’s playing to, an unchallenged alliance.
These songs and similarly intimate others like them were unquestionably personal. Young brilliantly, however, was able to make the ‘you’ of the songs not only the individual they initially were addressed to, but also the people who would shortly be buying his albums in their thousands and then millions. The ‘you’ in this instance being the plurality of his audience, spoken to as if in private conversation, with whom he shared mutual intimacies, feelings about love and loss in which his fans would increasingly hear aspects of themselves and what they were going through.
One of the pivotal songs here, I think, is the surreal ‘Last Trip To Tulsa’, which as the closing track of Neil Young would be regarded by some as an aberration, too heavily indebted to Dylan, its solo acoustic setting at odds with the rest of the album. Now, of course, its impressionistic narrative – nightmarish, absurd, paranoid, awash with grim portent – can be heard as the precursor to masterpieces to come, like ‘Ambulance Blues’ or ‘Thrasher’ and even ‘Ordinary People’, that similarly took the pulse of the nation and its people.
Sugar Mountain is a fascinating snapshot of Neil Young at a transitory moment in his long career, for which it also provides an indelible template. This is in many ways how he would sound for the next 40 years. At least, that is, when he wasn’t raging noisily with Crazy Horse, taking various detours into unadulterated country, winsome folk, synthesiser-pop, stylised rockabilly, big band R&B, grunge, electronic experimentalism, otherwise undermining convenient expectation or elsewhere meandering down the musical avenues that have at various times left fans baffled and at least one record company exasperated enough to want to sue him for not sounding enough like himself, when in fact for all this time he has sounded like no one at all but himself.