Since Bob Dylan’s ‘Bootleg Series’ popularised the format, any artist sufficient in stature and back catalogue is now almost obligated to author an archival series of rarities and live tracks. Young’s variant, the appropriately monikered Neil Young Archives Performance Series, has been kicking around since 2006 and so far amassed eight live albums, leaping around his discography to present remarkable gigs from a myriad of periods. Bluenote Café is among the most interesting.
Few artists besides Dylan have had the longevity or taken as many creative left turns as Neil Young. From pastoral folk to the ‘Godfather of Grunge’ via blistering thirty-minute psychedelic jams, Young has had the following he’s garnered principally for always being true to himself at that given moment, as opposed to any greater urge for quality control.
Notoriously during the 1980s, he changed labels (from Reprise to Geffen) and released a string of unexpected and perplexing experiments, of which the 1982 vocoder and synth excursion Trans is probably his most famous. Bluenote Café’s recordings, however, are taken from the This Note’s For You tour – one of his now lesser-remembered albums, though at the time a return to both form and Reprise, with the unexpected addition of a horn section.
“It’s a brassier sound than typical Young, as he and the band entire saunter and swing across 21 bluesy, breezy and smouldering tracks”
The songs on Bluenote Café, Young’s fourth release in two years, also prominently feature horns, giving the album a distinct flavour some of his other live records lack. Also significant and immediately noticeable on scanning the track list is the almost blanket omission of recognisable tunes; both hits and fan favourites are ignored in favour of those best served by this particular sonic palette. It means that, going in, Bluenote Café is something of a daunting experience (at 146 minutes it’s a long haul even by Neil Young standards) but one which rewards the time and patience.
What makes this release stand against Young’s many other live albums is absolutely the backing band (also titled Bluenote Café). Between the ten people on stage most of the time, just two are wielding guitars, the rest keys, drums and the aforementioned horns. It’s a brassier sound than typical Young, as he and the band entire saunter and swing across 21 bluesy, breezy and smouldering tracks that represent both a welcome change for us, and what was a breather for Young.
Squealing guitar and classic Rock ’n’ Roll-R’n’B vintage riffs, coupled with moody jazz lines, marks the experience as decidedly vintage in approach, but the clarity of the recording is decidedly current. This is not particularly surprising, considering how crotchety Young can get over sound quality – his Pono player is marketed towards audiophiles (though the allegedly superior difference in audio quality has been found to be barely discernible in studies). The importance of this here is that it hardly sounds like a live album, joining perhaps only The Name of this Band is Talking Heads in the lonely but revered ranks of crystal clear, substantial, worthwhile and underheard vintage documents. It’s not a curio, it’s kinda essential.
“It serves as a vital addition to the expansive Neil Young canon, while remaining set to be one of the most significant archive reissues of any artist this year”
It’s hard to locate standout tracks, and that’s an excellent complaint. Despite the languid pace of a number of tunes, Bluenote Café as a whole never drags, and in fact the most memorable and vital tracks are the album’s longest. The thirteen-minute ‘Ordinary People’ – which was finally released on 2007’s Chrome Dreams II nineteen years after its recording here – is grandiose and elegiac; a track that continued Young’s tradition of impassioned epics starting with ‘Cortez the Killer’ and ‘Like a Hurricane’, and continuing through ‘Crime in the City’ (also included in this set) and ‘Natural Beauty’.
The other track of great significance is album-closer ‘Tonight’s the Night’. Here it acts as a sort of song-breakdown, dissecting one of the most famous products of the “Ditch Trilogy” into a ceaselessly chugging rhythm, voice and trademark guitar squeals. It ebbs and flows for twenty minutes, building to bombastic trombone/trumpet blasts and vertiginous guitar histrionics, before simmering back to choral chants of the eponymous lyric and mournful harmonica, then rising for just one more blast, just one more blast, just one more, until the final triumphant two minute hurrah.
Though you’ll probably rarely have the free time to listen to Bluenote Café straight through, it nevertheless works as a cohesive unit as much as clusters of songs. It may well be the best Archive Performance entry yet, and that’s including the homestead troubadour melancholia of Massey Hall 1971 and the Crazy-Horse-on-a-good-day soloing of Fillmore 1970. It serves as a vital addition to the expansive Neil Young canon, while remaining set to be one of the most significant archive reissues of any artist this year.