The question of necessity arises when discussing Neil Young’s solo acoustic Sugar Mountain: Live at Canterbury House 1968, the third release in his long-anticipated Archives series -- especially because Young already put out a solo acoustic concert, Live at Massey Hall 1971, just over a year ago. That question is rendered moot, however, as soon as the songs begin to roll: The Neil Young featured here is not the same man whose eccentric genius dominates Live at Massey Hall.
On that album, Young was on the other side of having released 1970’s After the Gold Rush and was on the cusp of delivering 1972’s Harvest; he was already solidifying into the rock legend we now know him as. On Sugar Mountain, however, Young’s band Buffalo Springfield had collapsed just six months earlier, his solo debut was untested and unreleased to the public, and, reportedly, he was so terrified to perform alone that he had to be coaxed from a mound of huddled blankets on his hotel room bed and driven to the unexpectedly sold-out crowd at the Canterbury House. Sugar Mountain is the sound of man just discovering his potential as a solo artist and a songwriter, and realizing how shattering that potential could be.
With the exception of the long-complete Buffalo Springfield tracks (“Mr. Soul,” a heart-cracked and trembling version of “Expecting to Fly”), the songs run toward the fragile and intimate, with Young working out new arrangements as he goes (“Winterlong”), spinning chilling stories (“The Loner”), strumming lightly beneath gorgeous, melancholic melodies (“Birds”), and nervously rapping in between songs (“It’s really sort of neat in here, isn’t it? With all the candles and everyone sittin’ around...”).
In short, it’s a snapshot of an artist just at the beginning of his long, unpredictable journey. He’s a different performer here than the one we know, making the songs different than the ones we know. By investing a now-classic catalog with immediacy, freshness and a delicate, humbling charm, Sugar Mountain not only stands as the best argument for the Archives series and illumination it could provide, but as a classic live record in its own right. And coming from the man who’s released such live monuments as Time Fades Away, Live Rust and Weld, that makes Sugar Mountain an unmitigated success -- and a necessity any way you look at it.
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