The latest in Young’s gaining-steam series of archival releases, Songs for Judy finds him again revisiting 1976, just as he did with last year’s Hitchhiker, a collection of unreleased studio recordings. Culled from the acoustic sets of Young’s November 1976 tour with Crazy Horse, the two-dozen-plus songs on Songs for Judy find him ambling through his back and future catalog. He tries out newly written material like “Pocahontas” and “White Line,” pleases the fans with faithful versions of “Heart of Gold” and “After the Gold Rush,” returns to his Buffalo Springfield days with an unplugged but still taut “Mr. Soul,” and takes a few deep-cut forays; “The Losing End” has never sounded more country-lonesome.
But that wide-ranging set list doesn’t fully hint at the charm of Songs for Judy, which takes its title from its opening monologue: a seemingly stoned Young rambling on drolly about how he’d spotted the late Judy Garland in the audience, who asked him about “the business.” When he’s singing and playing, Young sounds locked in as always—check out the riveting unearthing of “The Old Laughing Lady” here–but whether introducing songs or even in the middle of them, he’s rarely sounded looser and more playful on a live record. He chides some of the crowd for being “asleep,” dedicates “Mellow My Mind” to critics, talks about not falling into the golden-oldies trap, and responds to a request for “Country Girl” (from CSNY’s Déjà vu) by only singing a bit of it and claiming that’s all he remembers. In terms of vituperative monologues, it’s not quite Lou Reed’s Take No Prisoners, but it’s some of the loopier commentary captured on a live record from a major act.
Songs for Judy also serves as an audio verite documentary on how arena-sized and sometimes out of control rock had become by the late ’70s. Young gives a bemused shout-out to the “loud, boisterous mothers out there,” but he’s not kidding; the crowds heard throughout the album sound even more lubricated than he may have been. They unleash lusty screams not only when he mentions “drugs and booze” in “Too Far Gone” but even after he introduces a fragile version of “Here We Are in the Years” as “kind of a quiet song.” By comparison, Live at Massey Hall 1971, one of his earlier vault releases, sounds like a church recital, the audience politely applauding and listening throughout. Young had confronted similar scenarios on previous tours, including his 1974 stadium jaunt with CSNY, but Songs for Judy lets us join Young in experiencing rock’s new world disorder.