Neil Young’s Live at the Fillmore East

By Jeffrey Gustafson

Neil Young’s intimidating discography is made all the more so by the prospect of a whole archive of unreleased material that he claims will be in record stores in due time. The forerunner in this archive is Live at the Fillmore East, the electric half of a show recorded in 1970 in support of his second album Everybody Knows This is Nowhere. It should have fans salivating for what is to come.

If you’ve ever listened to Everybody, you’ve pretty much listened to Fillmore East, which is nothing to complain about. They share three key songs—the original’s title track, “Down by the River,” and “Cowgirl in the Sand”—the latter two being notoriously long to begin with. On Fillmore East, the songs extend to 12 and 16 minutes, respectively, making up 70 percent of the album’s running time, although “Cowgirl” includes about one-and-half minutes of applause.
Young’s genius is most apparent in these songs, because it’s so unassuming. The vocals are out of key, the guitars are a mess even playing just two choppy chords, the rhythm is elementary, the lyrics are awkward, and the solos are anything but virtuosic. It’s songwriting stripped to its essentials—no embellishment, no pretense, no phoniness. Just a bunch of rockers exorcising their demons before they burn out completely.

That “bunch of rockers” is of course Young’s trusty backing band Crazy Horse, all of whom are in top form. At this point in his career, they were a new development, and he takes a minute on the song “Wonderin'” to introduce them. Besides the regular members, Young collaborator Jack Nitzsche adds his keyboard, but nothing too fancy. Especially noteworthy is guitarist Danny Whitten, memorialized on Young’s 1975 album Tonight’s the Night after a fatal heroin overdose. The live cut from that album, “Come on Baby Let’s Go Downtown,” written and performed primarily by Whitten, is featured here as well.

Interestingly, the other two tracks both figured into albums far in the future. “Winterlong” did not appear until 1977’s compilation Decade, while “Wonderin'” was a song on the much-reviled 1983 rockabilly Everybody’s Rockin’. It doesn’t sound like he puts as much effort into these two, but at least he’s honest about it; “Wonderin'” opens with Young saying, “this is a song from our new album…when we record it.”

Rest assured, there will be plenty of “new” albums soon enough.