On the one hand, the 1988 LP This Note’s For You was an admirably perverse move from Neil Young – an album decrying the use of pop music as a corporate branding tool (quaint, right?), dressed up as a big-band rhythm-and-blues review. On the other hand, it was a collection of mostly weak songs from his sketchy genre-session years, redeemed by neither the horn charts or the glossy production. The tour he put together around the album was hardly considered among Young’s best. During a run at the now-defunct East Village club The World, I recall Young defiantly performing only new songs, even repeating the LP’s title track for the encore. When he reprised “I ain’t singin’ for Miller/I ain’t singin’ for Bud,” some irate fans hurled beers toward the stage, and you really couldn’t blame ’em.
That said, this three-CD set, recorded over an eight-month stretch on that 1987-1988 tour, is an illuminating revisionist-history lesson. Yes, it’s long on shtick (“Ladies and Gentlemen, emanating from the Secaucus Lounge at the fabulous Fandango hotel, the Bluenotes!” crows an emcee), and the mediocre songs haven’t improved. “Ten Men Workin'” is a camp show piece, ditto “Welcome To The Big Room,” and “Married Man” still sounds like it was written while waiting for the toast to crisp. But the way the album tried to conjure a scrappy South Side of Chicago bar band often works better on stage, with looser horn parts and, of course, stinging guitar. And the non-LP material shows more method behind the madness. “Bad News Comes To Town” is a slow-burn ballad about a bad-news dude named Bad News, with fierce guitar and sax solos conjuring the Big Man and the E Street Band (this is the late 1980s, remember). “Ain’t It The Truth” is a British Invasion-style go-go grinder with more six-string flash, “Doghouse” a funky goof that Neil’s old bandmate Rick James might’ve written – both flashbacks to Neil’s guitar-slinging salad days. Most impressive is “Ordinary People,” which reappeared in 2007 as the highlight of the latter-day outtake collection Chrome Dreams II; here it’s a 12-minute working-class anthem with brass underscoring Young’s soaring guitar rock instead of masking it.
Another surprise: It turns out that Neil did pull out some choice early tracks on the tour. “On The Way Home,” the Young gem sung by Richie Furay on Buffalo Springfield’s Last Time Around and stripped down by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young on 4 Way Street, gets reclaimed here in an arrangement that’s nearer the original, with horns working like a Motown session, sidemen adding Four Tops-y “woo-ooo-ooo”s, and Neil’s own lead vocals. The result may be the best reading of the song, ever. And the nearly 20-minute version of “Tonight’s The Night,” with a dark R&B vibe that calls Isaac Hayes to mind, is another one for the history books.