Neil Young and Bluenote Café: Bluenote Café (Reprise)
This is Performance Series 11 from the Neil Young Archives project, a two-CD set of live recordings from eleven 1987-88 shows with his Bluenotes band, which had to be renamed because of a lawsuit by Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes. (The new name better reflects Neil's original inspiration, a beloved Winnipeg bar called, yes, Blue Note Café, shown on the cover.) The first two tracks on Bluenote Café are from the year before This Note's for You was released, the rest (oddly, presented in chronological order of recording date, with just one exception) coming from the tour to promote its release.
There has never been a consensus about This Note's for You, which marked Young's return to Reprise Records after his contentious tenure at Geffen, when his stylistic shifts into genre tangents (rockabilly, electronica) led to Geffen actually suing Young.On the one hand, the title track was a small hit after controversy over MTV initially banning its video, and critics greeted it warmly. But it was another genre shift, into bluesy soul complete with a very prominent horn section, and consumers didn't buy many copies of the LP. (The core of the band is Crazy Horse, but with Frank Sampedro on keyboards instead of guitar.)
This Note's for You was not quite forty minutes in length; Bluenote Café is well over two hours on two CDs, yet only has two earlier classic Young songs (more on that below). There are a whopping seven previously unreleased songs here; it would've been eight if Young had not included a version of "Ordinary People" on Chrome Dreams II a few years ago. Young had either worked up quite a lot of new material but not had room for all of it on This Note's for You, or he was inspired by working with this band and kept writing for it. "Crime in the City" is previewed here; it ended up on the following year's much-better-received Freedom, in a different arrangement, but sounds good with this band too. It's amazing that it took the epic "Ordinary People" so long to appear, because it is a major highlight of this set. And, with the greater looseness and more natural sound of the concert setting, some of the more lackluster material from This Note's for You sounds better here than there. In particular, I had never particularly noticed "Twilight" before, but this time around its intimacy and emotion tugged my heartstrings. It's still not a great album; the horn arrangements are sometimes blatant rip-offs of familiar Stax songs, and Young's voice was never ideal for the brassy uptempo tunes, which would sound better with a bigger voice a la Wilson Pickett. But "live," it's a more immersive and persuasive experience.
Now, about the two "oldies." One is Neil's Buffalo Springfield song "On the Way Home," which always did have a pretty ornate arrangement and fits right in here. The other is "Tonight's the Night," which clocks in at 19:27 and bounces from stripped-down brooding to brassy exultation. I never would have guessed that the latter would work, but it does, brilliantly and cathartically.
The two-CD set is being sold for the price of one CD ($15-17), the same cost as the download; thank you, Neil. If you want the four-LP set, though, get ready to shell out $90.