And to those who stuck it out with us during what turned out to be our longest (albeit unintentional) sabbatical away from the blog to date, we thank you for continuing to check in here despite the sorry lack of any new updates.
Now, with that out of the way…
It’s hard to believe it’s been more than 25 years since I went to *that* Neil Young concert at Seattle’s Paramount Theatre back in 1989. That night, I was fully expecting a nostalgic greatest hits sort of thing from an artist who at the time seemed fairly deep into what looked like a near irreversible artistic decline.
What I got instead was…well, this:
The new songs Neil performed that night – some of his best work in a decade or more – were originally supposed to be part of a new album with the working title of Eldorado. This super-rare recording never really got a proper release (at least outside of a very limited edition Japanese five-song E.P.).
But most of the songs – including the soon-to-be-anthemic “Rockin’ In The Free World,” performed for the very first time at that same show I witnessed in Seattle – eventually made their way onto Freedom later that year on Reprise. Freedom, as everyone by now knows, ended up becoming the breakthrough “comeback” hit which signaled Neil Young’s artistic and commercial return from the dead.
At the time of its release, Neil Young was just coming off a nearly ten year period marked by a series of bizarre genre-hopping experiments – an artistic malaise that resulted in a shrinking fan base and declining record sales. Music historians now commonly refer to this period as Neil Young’s “lost eighties” (or occasionally as the “Geffen Years,” in reference to his record label back then – the same one that famously sued him for his refusal to make “Neil Young records”).
Coming in the aftermath of such albums as Trans and Everybody’s Rockin’, Freedom not only arrived as a shock, but also kicked off a glorious, completely unexpected run of latter-day 1990s classics including Ragged Glory, Harvest Moon, Mirror Ball and Sleeps With Angels. As music “comebacks” go, this one has to be counted as among the greatest of all time.
But where all of this really began, was on that same tour with his small, four piece band The Restless, including that jaw-dropping 1989 Seattle show at the Paramount Theatre. Although decent quality bootleg recordings of that show can be found fairly easily by searching the internet, there doesn’t seem too much out there in the way of video.
The clips we’ve posted up here are from a show in St. Louis that happened a few weeks earlier during the same tour. They sound nearly as good as what I can remember from witnessing that amazing night on a stage in Seattle more than a quarter century ago.
The main reason for dredging up all this history now though, is because (as most fans already know), Neil Young has a new album recorded with Willie Nelson’s sons coming out next month called The Monsanto Years. Whether or not this new record will be the same sort of artistic revelation that Freedom was, of course remains to be seen. But the parallels between “then” and “now” are striking.
For one thing, based on his most recently recorded output over the past few years, a decent argument could be mounted right now that Neil Young is deeply mired in an artistic funk not at all dissimilar to those so-called “lost eighties” years. If you examine Neil Young’s last several studio albums closely, you’ll find that two of them (Americana and A Letter Home – the latter of which was recorded entirely in the phono-booth at Jack White’s record shop), contain no new original material at all.
Of the remaining two, the symphonic arrangements heard on 2014’s Storytone would easily qualify it as ranking right up there with Neil Young’s most bizarre genre experiments in the 1980s. Which, at least among his most recent work, really leaves only 2012’s Psychedelic Pill – his long awaited reunion with Crazy Horse – as the sort of album most fans would recognize as the type of record Neil Young is normally best known for.
Neil Young premiered several of the new songs from The Monsanto Years at a surprise club show in San Luis Opisbo last month, where he was joined onstage by Promise of the Real, a band featuring Willie Nelson’s two sons Lucas and Micah. The band is also featured on the new album and will be joining Neil Young on tour this summer.
The song titles we’ve seen, including “New Day For the Planet” and “Rock Starbucks” suggest a politically charged album along the lines of Young’s infamous Anti-Bush themed 2006 album Living With War – a proposition which could go either way, artistically speaking. Basically Neil Young is letting us know he’s pissed off about GMOs here. Which, if nothing else, means that The Monsanto Years is a sure-fire candidate to divide his fans right down the middle no matter what.
We’ve included some audio from the San Luis Opispo show below to let you judge for yourself. You can also check out a snippet of the new video for “Rock Starbucks” over at Democracy Now (where the video was previewed this past Friday).