Neil Young

Live at Fillmore East 1970

(Reprise/Neil Young Archives; 2006)

By Christopher Alexander | 1 December 2006

Finally: Danny Whitten’s Viking funeral. Neil Young seemed to make a career of mourning the man in the seventies. The famed triptych of post-Harvest (1972) bummers—Time Fades Away (1973), On the Beach (1974), andTonight’s the Night (1975)—is haunted by the guitarist’s ghost, literally in the case of Tonight, which features the guitarist’s song, “Come on Baby Let’s Go Downtown.” There, it’s a jolt, an energetic and fairly tight performance on an album where Young sounds like he doesn’t know where the microphone is. It’s also a reminder of what he had lost; the band was clearly on fire that night at the Fillmore, as they were during Everybody Knows This is Nowhere (1969) and “When You Dance, I Can Really Love (from After the Goldrush [1970]).” And while he’s spent most of his life backed by other musicians, Crazy Horse gave him the room to become Neil Young, an artist whose strength lies in vagaries, ellipses, and half sentences.

Crazy Horse understood that, if only because they lacked the chops to do much of anything else. But Whitten understood and was able to play. Take a close listen to the instrumental passages of “Down by the River” sometime: it’s Young’s show, but Whitten gives it shape, teasing and rephrasing the two chord vamp. He barely even plays them as chords, but plays single notes instead, a sort-of counterpart to a bass player. But who he’s really countering is Young, and Young eats it up. It’s okay if you miss it after the first three thousand spins; you’re supposed to. Any comedian will tell you that the key to a really great punch line is a better straight man; they’ll also tell you that’s the sort of thing that just can’t be taught.

So it’s not hard to understand why Young was wallowing in a god-sized hole for the better part of a decade; but it’s unfortunate that, for all Whitten had done for him, their recorded output together was relatively scant. Live at Fillmore East 1970 goes a long way in rectifying this matter, and it confirms the suspicions raised on Tonight. It’s tempting to call it the ultimate Crazy Horse statement: the music the band creates is lackadaisical, unshaven and blue-gummed, stoned to their eyeballs, and unspeakably beautiful. One feels that this is, in fact the definitive reading of Everybody Knows this is Nowhere; certainly all the songs that are featured here are better, and that includes “Down by the River,” Whitten vamping chords but still pushing, still finding new grooves, still being the platform from where Young flies. Even on the lighter material—the other side of the equation presented on Everybody Knows and perfected here—Danny’s right there, in an aching version of “Winterlong,” a song lost til the Decade retrospective, or in the bouncing “Wonderin’.”

Neil Young’s archives are legendary for being full to burst with unreleased material; they’re equally renowned for being, commercially anyway, hard to open. To be honest, when I heard he was inaugurating the series with a live record, I was disappointed. “The man completely scrapped at least two finished albums that haven’t seen the light of day, and he gives us a tour souvenir?” But Live at Fillmore East 1970 is on par with At Folsom Prison (1968) in that it’s an important redefinition of a legendary catalogue. It is also Danny Whitten’s brightest hour, and a fitting end to a chapter heretofore smothered by a monolithic pall. That pall bursts ablaze in all sixteen minutes of “Cowgirl in the Sand.”