What a difference a year makes. (Well, actually, 24 of them – but who’s counting?)
Twelve months ago, we were discussing the then-latest release from Neil Young’s archives, Sugar Mountain: Live At Canterbury House 1968. Hitting the play button on that album activated the Wayback Machine to vaporize 40 years and drop us in the middle of an intimate performance by a just-sprung-from-Buffalo-Springfield Neil Young, a few days shy of his 23rd birthday. Sugar Mountain was a document of a moment of doubt in Young’s career: prior to the Canterbury House shows, there was some question as to whether just he and his guitar were enough to draw a crowd. ‘Tis true.
So here we are a year later, with the release of Young’s much-jawed-about ode to the highway Fork In The Road – and even more jawed-about Archives Vol. I box set – to fill in the gaps since Sugar Mountain. (And, yes, all you Rusties out there: there were the remastered versions of Young’s first four solo albums, as well. Let’s not forget those. Heavens, no.) We certainly haven’t been lacking for output from Ol’ Neil, but none of it is boring, either. Of course, how could it be? Here you have a guy who is as equally at home coaxing lovely acoustic sounds out of Hank Williams’ old Martin as he is wailing the living psychedelic dogsnot out of his battered Les Paul. And no matter how far he’s wandered from the path expected of him over the years, one thing has remained constant: Neil Young has remained true to himself.
Which brings us to the matter at hand, Dreamin’ Man Live ’92, the latest release from the “Performance Series” chamber of Young’s vault. What we have here is another stand-alone live album, with tracks taken from multiple performances in 1992. Compared to the cross-your-fingers-and-let-it-fly vibe of Sugar Mountain, Dreamin’ Man is a snapshot of an accomplished, more confident Young – confident enough, in fact, to try out tracks from his then-unreleased Harvest Moon album.
I know it doesn’t sound like much of a risk now; to the majority of listeners, Dreamin’ Man will simply be a well-recorded collection of live tunes that you know most of the words to – from what turned out to be a very successful studio album. We’re expecting to hear those chiming 12th fret harmonics between lines on “Harvest Moon” when we listen to it now (and Young really does pull it off beautifully) – but try, if you will, to imagine what the average person in the audience back in the spring of ’92 thought the first time they heard him do it. Same thing with the signature lick of the title track – we’re prepped to hear that little run now, but it didn’t mean the same thing the first time that Young dropped out on the rhythm to play it all those years ago.
But, you don’t have to play “Imagine If …” to enjoy Dreamin’ Man, either. You can ease back in the rocker and savor Young’s acoustic guitar work (percussive, yet melodic; making some pretty intricate stuff sound so damn casual … as the late Jay Bennett once called it, “beautiful slop”). Listen to the break on “Such A Woman” and nod to the stark beauty of Young’s harmonica against his piano. You’ll miss “Old King” just as if he was your dog – and know that the song had to be played on the banjo … just the way Young plays it. Though we don’t have any cascading pedal steel from Ben Keith or backing vocals to pretty things up, the music is always full and never lacks for sound or emotion. And what you end up realizing is that, compared to last year’s Sugar Mountain, Dreamin’ Man offers us a look at a man just that much more comfortable in his own skin. There was a lot of weirdness and a lot of good music played by Neil Young between the Canterbury House shows in 1968 and the 1992 acoustic shows documented on Dreamin’ Man – but time hadn’t really changed him … just made him more Neil.