Friday, June 2, 2023

Album Reviews: Neil Young & the Ducks, Neil Young with the Santa Monica Flyers (2023)

The Ducks with Neil Young - High Flyin'
The Ducks (with Neil Young) – High Flyin’ (Shakey Pictures Records)

One of a pair of recent archival releases from Neil Young’s “original bootleg series,” High Flyin’ features highlights of a summer ’77 California tour by the Ducks, a pick-up band comprised of Young, former Moby Grape bassist Bob Mosley, drummer Johnny Craviotto (who played with Ry Cooder and Buffy Sainte-Marie), and guitarist Jeff Blackburn, who fronted his own band and co-wrote “My My Hey Hey (Out of the Blue)” with Neil. Released as three-album vinyl or two-CD sets, the 25-tracks were chosen by all the band members and includes a brace of cover tunes alongside several Young compositions. All four men share the microphone, so the result is a triumph of band democracy, everybody had their spotlight, and the entire album sounds like a bunch of friends jamming full-stop.

The handful of Neil originals are generally from the more-obscure wing of his enormous mansion of songs, the lone exceptions being Young’s “Are You Ready For the Country?,” which places a sly groove alongside the song’s guitar-driven shake, rattle and roll arrangement, and Buffalo Springfield’s “Mr. Soul,” which is afforded a ramshackle, feedback-drenched, runaway freight train-styled performance. Much of the material on High Flyin’ was penned by Mosley and/or Blackburn, however, and they mix country, rock, and blues styles as deftly as Mr. Young with the instrumental skills to pull off the disparate genres. The band’s choice of cover tunes – bangers like Fats Domino’s “I’m Ready” or Crazy Horse’s “Gone Dead Train” – are provided uniquely rowdy and highly amplified interpretations while material that hits closer to home, like Moby Grape’s incredible “Gypsy Wedding,” is infused with equal enthusiasm. The album’s sound quality is top notch, better than expected for 1977 recordings, but Neil typically spared no expense, bringing in a mobile recording van to capture the shows, something we’re all thankful for... Grade: A   BUY!

Neil Young's Somewhere Under the Rainbow
Neil Young with the Santa Monica Flyers – Somewhere Under the Rainbow (Shakey Pictures Records)

Ol’ Neil’s mining his archives for these “original bootleg series” releases and he’s crankin’ them out a couple at a time. Young may be providing these recordings with his personal touch before setting them free but, as is the case with Somewhere Under the Rainbow, there are some shows that should stay in the can. Not that this November 1973 concert is horrible – there are, indeed, some fine performances on the two discs – but the sonic quality is pretty funky, hollow and distant with an edge of distortion, just a notch above an audience-recorded bootleg, really, and Neil sounds like he’s singing to us from the bottom of a cave.

Young leads an ace band through its paces, talented players like multi-instrumentalist Nils Lofgren, steel guitar wizard Ben Keith, and Crazy Horse’s Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina, and the set includes beloved tunes like “Cowgirl In the Sand,” “Helpless,” “Roll Another Number (For the Road),” and Buffalo Springfield’s “Flying On the Ground Is Wrong.” The extended version of “Tonight’s the Night, Part II” kicks ass in all the best ways, but Neil’s performance overall is somewhat lackluster, and the band can only prop up its frontman so much. The album’s liner notes lend more gravity to the performance than it deserves and while your enthusiasm may vary from this scribe’s, if yer gonna shell out a double-sawbuck for a Neil Young bootleg – authorized or not – I’d recommend High Flyin’ above this tedious molasses mix. Grade: C+   BUY!

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