The Upshot: Crackling with an in-your-face immediacy, these songs from Neil Young’s near-mythical This Note’s For You tour rock as hard as any number of his other officially-released live albums.
BY FRED MILLS
For his latest Neil Young Archives release—#11, if you are keeping track—the Neilster dips into the near-mythical, horns-and-guitars tour he mounted in ’88 supporting his blues/jazz-rocking This Note’s For You album. Why “near-mythical”? Well, for starters, the tour only generated a relative handful of concerts, and as a result not too many fans got to see it compared to, say, a Crazy Horse tour. Plus, nestled among the setlists were a number of songs he unveiled on that tour and that tour only, so unless you grabbed some of the resulting bootlegs, there’s long been a notable gap in your collection of individual Young tracks.
But probably more to the point, the two-CD (or 4-LP) Bluenote Café is, in a word, massive, easily as powerful as any previous officially-released Young live album (and as the proud owner of 300+ boots myself, possibly any Young live title, period). One listen will make you a believer in the tour’s Rushmore-like stature among hardcore Young devotees.
Crackling with an in-your-face immediacy (particularly Young’s guitar, which isn’t toned down a whit despite the big-ensemble arrangements), the 22-song collection—culled primarily from April and August of ’88, plus two cuts from late ’87 featuring the Crazy Horse rhythm section—rocks like a motherfucker. Unlike the studio album, which had its moments but came off as a bit self-conscious in a hey-yes-we-can-play-swing-blues manner, Bluenote Café nails the tight-but-loose aesthetic, with the Rick Rosas-Chad Cromwell rhythm section perfectly in the pocket and the six-piece horn section alternating between snappy call-and-response with Young’s guitar and brawny soloing (in particular, Steve Lawrence on tenor sax). Swinging opening cut “Big Room” and the primal, undeniably sexy “Ten Men Working”—the latter, complete with double-entendre “chain gang” grunts—in particular breathe new life into the TNFY material.
Three deep-catalog gems also make this a must-own. First and foremost is the near-mythical “Ordinary People,” originally a studio outtake that finally saw belated release on 2007’s odds-and-sods collection Chrome Dreams II; epic both musically (the cinematic, keys-and-horns arrangement) and lyrically (in its Springsteenian celebration of the working class), the 13-minute it’ll bring tears to your eyes even as you’re thrusting your fists skyward. Then there’s a remarkable reworking of Buffalo Springfield’s “On the Way Home,” simultaneously sunny and elegant, with massed vocal harmonies and sweet sax lines. A 20-minute, show-closing Tonight’s the Night,” though, is what leaves your jaw sore from scraping the floorboards. Flush with adrenalin, woozy with booze, its tense dynamics see-saw from moody, downtempo meditations and full-ensemble blasts of psychedelic horns and guitar as frenzied as any Crazy Horse jam you’d care to cite.
It’s worth noting that Young’s stylistic detours in the ‘80s while signed to Geffen have become part of Young’s own mythology; wasn’t it Geffen that sued Neil Young for not sounding like Neil Young, at least not the Harvest-hitmaker Neil Young they thought they were signing, or some such nonsense? Of course, as we all know, once he got off Geffen and re-signed with his old label Reprise in ’88, he promptly took another left turn with the horns-laden/MTV-nose-thumbing This Note’s For You. The following year would bring his instantly-iconic “Rockin’ in the Free World” song, ultimately rendering TNFY and the accompanying tour with his Ten Men Working (née Bluenotes) band a footnote.
Lucky for us, the concerts were saved for posterity, because on that tour, the boy definitely wasn’t singin’ for Spuds. Those notes were for us, fellow fans, and unlike a number of those other eclectic, short-lived detours, the music has aged brilliantly.
DOWNLOAD: “Ten Men Working,” “Tonight’s the Night,” “Ordinary People,” “One Thing”