An entertaining snapshot of a tour for more than only Young enthusiasts.
When Neil Young toured with Crazy Horse in November 1976, he opened each show with a solo acoustic set. Songs for Judy (named after Garland, not, sadly, Collins) collects performances from these sets, assembled with the flow of one long evening. Rather than being a placid opposition to each concert’s main electric event, these sets—at least as represented here—show Young upbeat and energetic. By mixing some of his classics with some lesser known material, including songs written at the time that wouldn’t be released for ages, the disc makes an entertaining snapshot of a tour for more than only Young enthusiasts.
Young’s demeanor in both music and stage banter drives much of the album. Relaxed and casual, he nonetheless throws himself into each cut. While the attitude of the disc suggests a series of tossed-off numbers, the delivery of each track puts Young’s artistic weight behind it. Returning to Buffalo Springfield’s “Mr. Soul” captures a surprising intensity given the setting. Playing piano and harmonica for “After the Gold Rush,” he turns his dreamy vision and worry into a memorable rendition. The easy move into significance keeps an edge to an album that could have otherwise drifted into folkie strumming.
Those tracks, like “Heart of Gold” and “Harvest” make for obvious choices on the disc, but Young went into unlikely territory on that tour. The first song after the lengthy introductory spiel, “Too Far Gone” sounds like a classic-to-be even though it would have been unfamiliar to his audience and would go on to be buried for a time. That year, Young had made and shelved his Hitchhiker album (finally released in 2017), and a few of those tracks appear here. “Human Highway” gets a spry banjo treatment, tucking more into old-time tradition that the album version. The ever-weird “Campaigner” shows up here, too, and while it sticks, it must have been as inscrutable then as it is now.
The collection has only one misstep, an overwrought version of “A Man Needs a Maid.” The song’s inherent tension between fear and loneliness has never quite worked, and this rendition—complete with unnecessary synthesizer—heightens the melodrama to a pitch that fails on its own and in the context of the album. A far better song, “The Needle and the Damage Done” lets Young deliver strong sentiment with a stronger sense of melody, timing and atmosphere. The following story of writing “Pocahontas” while high undoes the moment a little, but the performance of that song still stands out.
As artists from previous generations (or their labels, in some cases) insist on digging through all possible demos, outtakes and recorded sneezes, it seems decreasingly likely that valuable material will suddenly fall out of a forgotten drawer. The music here hasn’t exactly been missing, at least to bootleggers, but its presentation in Songs for Judy delivers a surprisingly valuable and enjoyable set from one of our more heavily archived musicians. Even as Young continues a healthy schedule of new songwriting, he unearths a seemingly endless supply of treats. This set suggests that the potential of still-buried material should ward off archaeological cynicism.