The Raw, Unfiltered Magic of this New Seventies Neil Young Bootleg
Neil Young always knew Tonight’s the Night was intense. “If you’re gonna put a record on at 11:00 in the morning, don’t put on Tonight’s the Night,” he warned Cameron Crowe in 1975. “Put on the Doobie Brothers.”
Young’s point was evident without even hearing the music. Just look at the stark, spooky cover, which features him standing onstage in complete darkness, wearing a pinstripe jacket and raising his finger to the microphone, his mouth forming a ghoulish smile. His shoulder-length hair looks like it’s gone many days without a wash, the perfect companion for the scraggly beard hovering an inch above the harmonica positioned around his neck. And did we mention he’s wearing aviator sunglasses? Indoors? At night?
This iconic image was shot on Nov. 5, 1973, when Young and his band the Santa Monica Flyers — guitarist Nils Lofgren, pedal steel guitarist Ben Keith, and the Crazy Horse rhythm section of drummer Ralph Molina and bassist Billy Talbot — performed at the Rainbow Theatre in London. That same night is the subject of Young’s latest archival release, the incredible Somewhere Under the Rainbow, out today.
Rainbow is not revelatory for being an archival live album. Young has released plenty of those over the years — from 2018’s Songs For Judy (taken from 1976 acoustic sets) to 2021’s Way Down in the Rust Bucket (1990 with Crazy Horse) to 2022’s Noise and Flowers (2019 with Promise of the Real). It’s noteworthy because Young’s team failed to record any of the Tonight’s the Night tour shows — which included stops in the U.S., Europe, and Canada — leaving hardcore fans to rely on bootlegs for the last 50 years. In 2018, we got to listen to those rowdy pre-tour shows at the Roxy in Los Angeles. Five years later, on Rainbow, we finally get to hear what happened next.
And what happened next is a deeply weird evening, in which the crowd — eagerly expecting beloved sitting-on-some-hay-at-the-ranch Harvest gems like “Old Man” and “Heart of Gold” — were treated to songs they’d never heard, combined with bizarre commentary about two people they’d never heard of. The deaths of Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry from overdoses famously inspired Tonight’s the Night, an album containing sequel songs to “The Needle and the Damage Done” (the title track and “Tired Eyes”) and the disillusionment of the Sixties ideal (“Roll Another Number [For the Road]”). Tonight’s the Night may sound like your drunk uncle at a wake, but it’s cathartic, funereal country-rock at its finest, simultaneously agonizing yet gorgeous. “It was a healing, commiserative experience since we were trying to deal with the fact that all our friends and heroes were starting to drop dead,” Lofgren recently told Rolling Stone.
On a stage decorated with kitschy Florida decor that included an artificial palm tree, Young guzzled tequila and gave an unhinged greeting to the crowd, welcoming them to Miami Beach, where “everything is cheaper than it looks.” He was, essentially, over it.
So was the audience. “For almost two hours we were treated to Neil Young’s personal philosophy on anything that came into his head,” read one fan in Melody Maker, with the headline “Go home Neil Young!” “All I can say is that the rumors must be true — the real Neil Young is dead.” Most fans preferred the opener, a rising California band: “Thank goodness for the Eagles, who saved the entire evening from being a total write-off.” A U.K. newspaper music critic panned a show in typically English fashion, calling Young’s performance a “damp squib.” One can imagine a hungover Young, cracking up and beaming at these reactions.
It’s hard not to do the same when listening to Rainbow, recorded by Pete Long, author of the Young tour history Ghosts on the Road. Long wrote the liner notes for the record, while the sleeve inserts to the vinyl feature photographs of Whitten and Berry. The 14 tracks are of insanely good quality — you feel as if you’re right there in the sweaty crowd, witnessing him gracefully stumble through future fan favorites like “Mellow My Mind” and “Albuquerque.” And his rambling interspersed throughout the set is too hilarious not to play over and over. Before “Tired Eyes,” you hear a demand for “rock & roll!” from an angry fan in the crowd. “I’d love to go see some,” Young responds. “Maybe later tonight.”
Young does give in a bit towards the end — tossing in beloved songs like the CSNY classic “Helpless” and a nearly 13-minute ragged “Cowgirl in the Sand.” In one of the highlights, he plays “Tonight’s the Night” for a second time and then busts out Buffalo Springfield’s “Flying on the Ground Is Wrong.” The seven-year-old psychedelic odyssey is fitting and feels right at home here, especially the opening lines: “Is my world not falling down/I’m in pieces on the ground.” And when he performs a tender, downright beautiful take on “Human Highway,” he appears almost relieved to have a break from the chaos.
Tonight’s the Night will always be enshrouded in darkness — it’s the album Young himself cites as his black sheep. But there’s so much magic in Somewhere Under the Rainbow, even through the sloppily seedy, unfiltered lens. It’s no “China Grove,” and we would never want it to be.