While Tonight’s the Night is unquestionably better drama, the live takes may just be more listenable.
It’s almost quaint to think that Tonight’s the Night was once Neil Young’s most enigmatic album. The second of Young’s notorious “Ditch Trilogy” to be recorded, but the last to be released, it was a clear successor to 1973’s Time Fades Away: a sharp left turn from the polished folk-pop of the previous year’s Harvest, favoring raw, unadorned performances and desperate, drug-sodden songs mourning the loss of two close friends, Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten and CSNY roadie Bruce Berry. When the album finally came out in 1975—almost a year after 1974’s equally bleak but more polished On the Beach—its delayed release and cryptic packaging only enhanced its mystique.
Central to this mystique was a snippet of a 1973 concert review reproduced in the liner notes in untranslated Dutch. “The stage set was very strange,” the review reads in English. “At the back a large palm tree; next to the piano and loudspeakers were hanging all sorts of women’s boots and there were hubcaps laid all around. We were in total darkness when Neil and his band–Ben Keith, Nils Lofgren, Ralph Molina and Billy Talbot took the stage and slowly began playing the first number, ‘Tonight’s the Night.’ The sound was miserable, the band’s coordination was miserable and Neil’s piano and singing were miserable.” Here and elsewhere, descriptions of Young’s late 1973 gigs evoke a surreal, proto-David Lynchian affair, with Young dubbing the set “Miami Beach” and interrupting the show to have the stage manager shine a light on the fake palm tree, reminding the audience that “It’s all cheaper than it looks.”
Some 45 years later, of course, such eccentric flourishes barely make the top 20 of Young’s weirdest artistic moves, and Tonight’s the Night has gone from anti-commercial “fuck you” to part of the classic rock canon. There’s thus an unavoidable sense of disconnect between the performance captured on ROXY – Tonight’s the Night Live and the ones that have been inscribed in myth. The “Miami Beach” routine is here, of course (and, it’s worth noting, not ideal for the non-visual medium); and the songs—nine from Tonight’s the Night, plus “Walk On” from On the Beach—are still among Young’s most emotionally ragged. Far from a “miserable” performance by a “miserable” band, however, ROXY plays like a warmer, tighter run through the album, with Young sounding downright jovial at times.
Given the conditions behind the making of the album, it makes sense that ROXY would end up sounding more polished than its studio counterpart. The takes on Tonight’s the Night are sloppy and ramshackle, recorded live in L.A.’s Studio Instrument Rentals practice space by an ad-hoc group Young dubbed the Santa Monica Flyers: Crazy Horse bassist Billy Talbot and drummer Ralph Molina with Ben Keith on steel guitar and Nils Lofgren on guitar and piano. At the Roxy a month later, the group is inevitably better-rehearsed: Keith’s harmony vocals sweeten and strengthen Young’s on “New Mama,” and “Roll Another Number” sounds significantly more fleshed-out and less stoned than it does on the album. Neil still exceeds the upper limit of his vocal range on “Mellow My Mind,” but where on Tonight’s the Night he sounded desperate and unglued, here it’s well within the acceptable parameters of warts-and-all live singing.
All of this may be disappointing for listeners with a desire to witness the Beckettian toil and misery described in that famous Dutch review; but it’s also valuable to hear the songs from Young’s years in the “ditch” as songs and not (just) existential howls into the abyss. Many of the tracks here—“Tired Eyes,” “Albuquerque” and of course both mutations of the scorching title track—are among Young’s most bleakly beautiful. And while Tonight’s the Night is unquestionably better drama, the live takes may just be more listenable. Not the best foundation to build a myth upon, perhaps, but worthy nonetheless.