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Latest Neil Young archival release reveals the darkest year of his career

Neil Young’s latest archival release is “Roxy: Tonight’s the Night Live.”
Neil Young’s latest archival release is “Roxy: Tonight’s the Night Live.” Invision/AP

“Welcome to Miami Beach,” says Neil Young with tongue firmly in cheek on his newest archival album “Roxy: Tonight’s the Night Live.” “Everything is cheaper than it looks.”

The curious part of this quip doesn’t come from its lounge lizard delivery, but rather in the fact that Young is actually addressing a 1973 audience at the Roxy, the famed Sunset Strip music club, during its first week of operation. But if you think this concert document is some kind of joke, wait ’til the music kicks in. This is a chronicle of Young at his most luminously coarse, performing with a band called the Santa Monica Flyers and a repertoire of what was then completely unknown material. Most of these songs surfaced two years later as “Tonight’s the Night,” a discourse on mortality and loss triggered by the heroin overdose deaths of two close allies — Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry.

The story of “Tonight’s the Night” and the full emotive severity of its songs doesn’t need to reinterpreted here. It’s one of Young’s most essential recordings. Haven’t heard it? You need to.

What makes this latest entry in Young’s ongoing archival series so arresting is that it is one of the few concert documents to surface from one of the darkest, most fascinating and, to many, most perplexing periods of his career.

Neil Young - Roxy Tonight’s the Night Live cover

To give these performances some context, Young had, only a year-and-a-half earlier, released his commercial breakthrough record “Harvest.” That album perhaps misled casual fans into thinking Young was some sort of hippie folk-pop stylist akin to James Taylor. So he countered by mounting the Santa Monica Flyers, which was essentially his famed electric garage band Crazy Horse (bassist Billy Talbot and drummer Ralph Molina) with two longtime pals — steel guitarist Ben Keith and guitarist, pianist and future E Street-er Nils Lofgren — replacing the departed Whitten.

That transformed Crazy Horse into something of a woozy country band that rallies around desperately delivered “Roxy” performances of “Tired Eyes” and “Albuquerque” as well as the roadhouse séance versions of the title tune to “Tonight’s the Night” that essentially bookend this live set.

This isn’t pretty music. The tunes rumble with almost punkish disdain for order. Young’s voice unapologetically cracks and the lyrics, even the ones within the deceptively carefree “Roll Another Number (for the Road),” are ripe with the pain from what was, at the time, considerable personal loss. But all of that presents a portrait of stunning immediacy and honesty. The only Young record comparable to this is “Time Fades Away,” a 1973 live album of performances given with a different band six months prior to the “Roxy” shows.

Casual Young fans probably won’t readily take to this release. But for those yearning for insight into the era that produced his most moving and devastating work, “Roxy” is a revelation.

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