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A legend-to-be establishes his trademark sound

The long-awaited first release from Neil Young‘s archive series is a rough-honed gem that will be a welcome delight to his legion of aficionados.

With only six cuts — highlighted by glorious renditions of “Down by the River” and “Cowgirl in the Sand” — the songs on Live at the Fillmore East (Reprise) sound as fresh today as in the halcyon days when they were first recorded and performed.

Another reason to rejoice is the early incarnation of Young’s longtime backup band Crazy Horse, highlighted by the presence of Jack Nitzsche on keyboards and Danny Whitten on guitar. Whitten, a solid guitarist and near-perfect complement to the loose, garage-band sound that permeates this disc, slid into a severe drug addiction that prompted Young to fire him before a major tour in 1972. Days later, Whitten was found dead of an overdose.

That event has haunted Young for years, so much so that the existence of this release probably is a tribute to Whitten and his early contributions to the success of Crazy Horse.

Live at the Fillmore East (recorded on March 6 and 7, 1970) gets off to a short but rousing start with the title track from Young’s second solo album, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere. After leaving the commercially successful Buffalo Springfield and dallying with Crosby, Stills and Nash, Young would firmly establish the foundation of his trademark sound at these Fillmore shows.

Everything comes together on “Down by the River,” one of Young’s darkest and most mysterious songs. Running more than 12 minutes, it is an oblique lament on the death of a lover (or not). The narrator croons “she could drag me over the rainbow/and send me away.” But the tone turns ugly quite quickly and in a matter-of-fact manner. “Down by the river/I shot my baby,” leaving her for dead.

Whether the lady in question is metaphorical or not (like Shakespeare’s Dark Lady in many of his sonnets) is open to interpretation. Did the narrator shoot her with a gun (or — as some have speculated — with a syringe)? No one can say for sure, and Young isn’t telling.

The extended jams between Young and Whitten and the methodical rhythm section (drummer Ralph Molina and bassist Billy Talbot) produce a fierce synergy that consumes the listener like a quicksand bog.

Refinement has never been a Young strong suit. His success has depended on the rough unpredictability of his musicianship and the channeling of his subconscious in an almost surreal way, anchored by a country-rock sound that keeps everything from falling apart. Young’s vocals raise the tension with a controlled but fragile tenor.

Another highlight cut on the disc is “Wonderin’,” a countrified version of the song that would eventually be released on Young’s 1983 rockabilly flavored album, Everybody’s Rockin’. “Cowgirl in the Sand” continues past the 12-minute mark and concludes the disc. At times, Young’s vocals seem to be scratching the roof of the Fillmore, but they never quite break or seem out of place.

Young’s first in his archive series is a sure sign that things to come will be of the same musical quality and historic viability that this disc most certainly is.

— By Donald Gavron