The World Of The Bluenotes (no label 417/41888)
Live At The World, New York City, NY, USA, 17th & 18th April, 1988.
DISC ONE (17th April, Early Show; 59:46): 1. Intro/Ten Men Workin’ 2. Married Man 3. Tuning 4. Sunny Inside 5. Tuning 6. Hey Hey 7. Band Introductions 8. Bad News 9. Ain’t It The Truth 10. Tuning 11. Your Love Is Good To Me 12. Coupe De Ville 13. Life In The City 14. Soul Of A Woman 15. This Note’s For You.
DISC TWO (18th April, Early Show; 58:11): 1. Intro/Ten Men Workin’ 2. Tuning 3. Find Another Shoulder 4. MC 5. Married Man 6. MC 7. Your Love Is Good To Me 8. One Thing 9. Ain’t It The Truth 10. Band Introductions 11. Sunny Inside 12. Tuning 13. Twilight 14. Life In The City 15. This Note’s For You.
DISC THREE (18th April, Late Show; 71:49): 1. Welcome To The Big Room 2. Tuning 3. High Heels 4. Hello Lonely Woman 5. MC 6. Bad News 7. MC 8. Hey Hey 9. MC 10. Your Love Is Good To Me 11. Coup De Ville 12. Life In The City 13. Tuning 14. Soul Of A Woman 15. This Note’s For You 16. Encore/Audience 17. Ten Men Workin’.
Like that eminently cool cat Morris, Neil Young has had nearly as many professional lives as the famous feline who, even in a free fall from a ten-story building, somehow always lands on his feet just in time for dinner. Even if you set aside the obscure early rock bands Young cut his teenage teeth with back in his native Canada during the early 1960s and fast-forward through his coming-of-age fame with West Coast country rockers the Buffalo Springfield and his various tenures with Crosby, Stills, & Nash, Young’s diversions and detours with the likes of Crazy Horse, the Stray Gators, and Shocking Pinks only begin to tell the story of his enigmatic career, now well into its fifth decade.
One of the lesser-told tales is his late ’80s tenure with the Bluenotes, a swinging big band outfit he assembled, cut an album with (“This Note’s For You” — the title track for which a contentious, MTV-banning video was also made), and took out on the road. This was a band and tour in which the saxophones outnumbered the guitars three to one, and in retrospect, this period proved to be an unlikely precursor to what would soon come next from Neil: a sublime string of plugged-in, electric guitar-centric albums that returned the singer-songwriter to his former ragged glory and reunited him with his best-known, and best-loved collaborators, Crazy Horse.
That return to old, louder-than-god form coincided with a now-legendary 1991 tour that saw Young and Crazy Horse take two other slightly noisy acts out on the road for support: the punk traditionalists (yes, we know that sounds like a contradiction in terms) Social Distortion, and art-punk outsiders Sonic Youth. The collective decibels alone on that tour likely blew off any rust that might have been sleeping on Neil’s wall of dormant Marshall stacks. When Nirvana exploded onto the scene soon after, it didn’t take long for folks (for better or worse) to begin anointing the flannel-clad, mutton-chopped, and shaggy-maned purveyor of volume and feedback the “Godfather of Grunge.”
But we digress, if only to draw an illustration of how radically and boldly Young was capable of shifting stylistically — from introspective acoustic folk to sprawling roots rock to curiously Krautrock-influenced synthesizer songs to Fifties-style rockabilly and back — much to the chagrin of his record label for much of the 1980s, Geffen, which infamously sued him for allegedly “deliberately” making “un-Neil Young-like” records. That spurious claim and sour episode led to Young’s return to his old label, the then-recently revived Reprise Records, and his album with the brass-heavy Bluenotes, which was the first for his new (old) label. (We’re guessing Geffen would have hated that, too; maybe Neil submitted it to Reprise as a test of whether they would truly support his unexpected creative directions and contrarian impulses).
“The World Of The Bluenotes” effectively and definitively captures this period. It’s a handsomely presented, three-disc, no-label release documenting three shows Young and the Bluenotes played on April 17th and 18th, 1988 at the World in New York City, and it provides a nice slice of history, and an entertaining overview of Young’s relatively brief foray into a style of music that simultaneously recalls the chain-gang country gospel of “Tennessee” Ernie Ford and the showbiz soul band revues of the 1950s and 60s. This stereo soundboard set captures the early show of April 17th and both the early and late shows of the next night, the 18th, and features very similar set lists, culled exclusively from the “This Note’s For You” album. This was the era in which Young was criticized by some fans and critics who came to the shows expecting to hear “Heart of Gold” and “Cinnamon Girl” and were roundly disappointed, thus spurring a debate on what, exactly, an artist owes his or her audience, if anything.
The packaging is nicely presented, echoing the jazz label Blue Note’s art and lettering fonts, and the inserts include what look to be period-appropriate photographs from the Bluenotes’ tour. The silver picture discs likewise tastefully mimic the style of the Blue Note label and suit the music well. Unfortunately, while all of the songs listed do appear on the discs, the numbered track listing on the back cover does not match up to the numbered running order of songs on the three discs (we’re guessing a few of the markers given track numbers on the back cover, such as “Tuning” and “MC,” threw the numbers off by two or three songs at any given time).
But really, this is a minor mistake and, unless you’re programming specific tracks to shuffle rather than just letting it play through, it really doesn’t make much of a difference. We only noticed the flaw when we wanted to compare the sound quality — which is very good to excellent throughout — and performances of a few songs, head-to-head, across the discs.
“Ladies and gentlemen, direct from the men’s room and the Greyhound bus depot — Neil Young and the Bluenotes!” begins the MC by way of introduction, which hints at the lighthearted tone of the proceedings about to commence. And then Neil and his nine piece band light out for the mid-tempo, cool cat groove of “Ten Men Workin'” with Neil in sturdy voice and guitar. He handles all of the guitar duties with aplomb and his playing — tasty, conversational, laid-back but pungent — sounds and feels like a good fit for the big, brass cushion that’s been laid out for him. Clearly, Young is enjoying himself here, and each of the three concerts are uniformly strong.
“Married Man,” the number that follows “Ten Men Workin’ ” on the first night, is awfully close in tempo, melody, and mood to its opening number predecessor, however, and points up some of the repetitions and limitations inherent in Neil’s and the Bluenotes’ fairly narrow niche approach. Maybe Young sensed this, too, because he wisely places “Married Man” after “Find Another Shoulder” by the second night, and then drops it altogether for the late show — that is, if these recordings adhere to the complete, correct sequence of songs played on those dates.
But this is feel-good mood music, no doubt meant for an evening of loosey-goosey swinging, dancing, and singing along to the revelry. When Neil announces that he feels “Sunny Inside,” and launches into the song of the same name that swings like the little brother of “In The Midnight Hour,” we’re inclined to believe him. The moody lover’s paean, “Twilight,” that makes its lone appearance here from the April 18th early show on the second disc, casts a sweet, spooky spell.
For us, the best and most memorable moments on this set all have to do with the three gleefully spirited versions we get with “This Note’s For You,” one of Young’s best late-period anti-establishment songs. At the time, the tune’s video was even briefly banned by MTV following pressure by sponsors, and Michael Jackson’s lawyers threatening a lawsuit over Young’s unflattering depiction of the “King of Pop”‘s hair catching fire on a sound stage. Of course, when the video, cleverly directed by filmmaker Julian Temple, proved enormously popular on alternative video channels, MTV had a sudden change of heart and ethics and threw it into heavy rotation. The video wound up winning an MTV “Best Video” award.
Even now, 25 years on, the song remains a marvelously tongue-in-cheek, yet pointed critique of the crass commercialization, and corporate co-opting of rock & roll. And it may even ring truer now; speaking (from where we sit) as a needed corrective to just how totally tied-in a once supposedly rebel music form is to every aspect of boorish big business, corporate tour sponsorship, and gluttonous consumer culture.
Indeed, despite all the horns and Blues Brothers-ish feel-good songs about cars and girls and hitting the dance floor, the sarcastic (and right on the money) sentiment behind “This Note’s For You” makes one thing abundantly clear: this is still a Neil Young concert, after all. And instead of a free fall from fame and grace, and a hard crash landing amid label lawsuits and public backlash, Neil the Man, like Morris the Cat, always lands on his feet, having shed his old life for another new one.