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Album review: Neil Young 'Sugar Mountain -- Live at Canterbury House 1968'

December 2, 2008 |  4:37 pm

Neilyoung1 The blessing and the curse of the Internet for musicians is that every step they take, professionally and personally, becomes available for public consumption instantaneously. That's created unprecedented opportunities for connecting with fans, but it has also stripped away a lot of the mystique that used to be a key facet of stardom.

It's hard to imagine 40 years from now finding a 2008 live recording by Britney Spears, Madonna or Hinder revealing anything that isn't clear today.

That makes "Sugar Mountain -- Live at Canterbury House 1968," the vintage live set by Neil Young being released this week on CD and DVD, all the more fascinating as a journey back to a watershed point in the musical evolution of one of the rock era's most valuable players.

When Young, on the verge of turning 23, stepped on stage at Canterbury House in Ann Arbor, Mich., before what's obviously a small audience, it seemed the only things certain to him at that point were that he could write songs and play guitar. Buffalo Springfield had disbanded after earning considerable critical respect but little mainstream recognition for its three studio albums, the bestselling of which, 1968's "Last Time Around," peaked at No. 42 on the Billboard chart.

The influential rock group's one Top 10 hit, "For What It's Worth (Stop, Hey What's That Sound)," was written and sung by Stephen Stills, while Young was at best a reluctant lead singer on  "Mr. Soul" and "Expecting to Fly."

What kind of career might await him was the great unknown, and in this performance recorded a few days before the release of his debut solo album, "Neil Young," you can feel his uncertainty in the many between-song comments that thankfully are preserved here. "I don't even know what to sing, you know?" he says while noodling on the acoustic guitar that's his only accompaniment. Later, he reiterates, "I don't know what to do. Does anybody want me to do anything? Songs? This is Sunday night, very impromptu."

What he did was about half the songs that would appear on "Neil Young" and soon become cornerstones of his solo repertoire, including "The Loner," "I've Been Waiting for You" and "The Old Laughing Lady," along with a handful of his Springfield compositions.

With his unconventionally high, quavery voice -- it's no accident he chose "Bernard Shakey" as a pseudonym for his film projects -- he couldn't have sounded less the emerging solo rock star. Nor does he come across as the captain of his destiny. "I never plan anything ahead, in case anybody hasn't noticed," he says by way of introducing the title tune.

A more prescient statement of a more mercurial and rewarding career rarely has been uttered.

-- Randy Lewis

Neil Young

"Sugar Mountain -- Live at Canterbury House 1968"


* * * * (4 stars)