Nick Bollinger reviews a vintage live performance of a dark Neil Young classic.
It’s hard enough to keep up with Neil Young’s current output of one new album every nine months or so, without keeping track of his various archival releases as well, but this one held a particular interest for me.
‘Tonight’s The Night’ was the title song of the most harrowing album Neil Young ever made. Originally released in 1975, he had recorded it almost two years earlier, off the back of a spectacular pair of mainstream hits - ‘Old Man’ and ‘Heart Of Gold’ - and a gold-selling album, Harvest.
But success was souring fast. At least two of Young’s close companions – a roadie called Bruce Berry and the guitarist Danny Whitten from Young’s backing group Crazy Horse – had recently died from drug overdoses, which was symptomatic of a scene that seemed to be growing darker by the day.
Recorded over a series of tequila-fuelled all-night sessions in August ‘73, Tonight’s The Night was both Young’s document of that scene and a kind of musical wake for his departed friends. But the resulting record was so raw, so obviously not hit material, that the record company initially turned it down.
Ultimately, though, it’s been recognised as one of Young’s most powerful works. I think so anyway, though I have to be in the right kind of mood to hear it.
Naturally I was curious about this record. Released on Record Store Day last month and now generally available, it’s called Roxy: Tonight’s The Night Live, and it is essentially that; Young and his band of the time, recorded at the newly opened Roxy Theatre in Los Angeles in September 73, playing their way through the album they had just recorded. And it’s pretty good.
It was an unusual line-up, and not one Young would use again: the rhythm section from Crazy Horse, steel player Ben Keith who had played on Harvest, and future Bruce Springsteen guitarist Nils Lofgren, alternating with Young on guitar and piano.
They are either deliberately loose, or else this was just as tight as they could play under the circumstances; either way, the music perfectly matches the world-weariness of the songs, which culminate in 'Tired Eyes' - not so much a tune as a monologue in which Young recounts the details of a drug deal gone horribly wrong.
It must have been a challenge for the audience that night at the Roxy, who wouldn’t have been familiar with any of these songs, and were likely expecting to hear Young’s recent hits. Still, they seem to have stayed with him, and are at times audibly responsive, particularly during Young’s droll between-song patter.
As a fan of Tonight’s The Night, I was curious to hear this live version. But while it’s good, it feels to me as though there’s something missing. Or rather, there’s something present that feels like it shouldn’t be there - and strangely I think it’s the audience. Neil’s playing these songs much as he did when he first recorded them a month earlier, and the audience is into it. Yet on the original it is that emptiness, that space you hear, that gives the music that extra chill. It’s the space where a pair of absent friends should have been.