Which varietal of vintage Neil Young live sets do you prefer? Acoustic or electric? Or both? For me, the perfect ones are those that start off with acoustic tracks and then segue into electric ones. Such as his 1979 album Live Rust with his band, Crazy Horse, and on which, after four acoustic tracks, comes the electric My My, Hey Hey (Out Of The Blue) and 11 more of them, including Powderfinger, Cortez The Killer, and Hey Hey, My My (Into The Black). Some of those, which became staple favourites of Young’s fans, were new songs back in 1978 when they were recorded live. Live Rust was also the soundtrack to a concert film by Young but when it came out, it got a bad rap from critics because some of the songs were repeats from his previous album, Rust Never Sleeps.

Critics had then said that Young, whose discography is gargantuan, was recycling his material to make new records. But later, like Rust Never Sleeps, Live Rust became (and continues to be) a showcase for the singer, guitarist and former member of famous bands such as Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (CSNY), demonstrating his equal virtuosity in performing acoustic folkie songs as well as searing lead guitar-led electric ones. For fans, Young’s prodigious catalogue of albums comprises more than 40 studio albums; nine live albums (if you include Rust Never Sleeps, which was partly recorded live and partly in the studio), and seven box sets and compilations. Then there are the 11 archives series albums, released since 2006 and of which the latest, Songs For Judy, came out in late November.

Songs For Judy is a big album: 23 songs, clocking in at nearly 80 minutes, and featuring Young playing solo during a tour in 1976. But there’s another story behind those songs. They were curated by journalist-turned-film-maker Cameron Crowe and record producer Joel Bernstein and comprise mainly acoustic performances by Young during the tour. That was the year when Young also performed at The Band’s multi-starrer (featuring Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and many more musicians) final concert, which was filmed as The Last Waltz by Martin Scorsese. The famed director, according to lore, had to technically mask a blob of cocaine that was visible on Young’s nose in the original footage of his performance of the song, Helpless, which he had written for CSNY’s 1970 album, Déjà Vu.

The Songs For Judy set list includes Young’s compositions that are adored by his fans—After The Gold Rush, The Old Laughing Lady, Human Highway, Mr Soul, The Needle And The Damage Done, and many others. The Needle And The Damage Done is part of the trio that concludes the album, the two others being Pocahontas and Sugar Mountain. Songs For Judy takes its title from the opening intro track in which an obviously high Young rambles about spying Judy Garland in the audience and a purported conversation with her about the music business. In 1976, Young was 32 (he’s now a ripe 73) and with the Songs For Judy collection we hear him in his best years, at least in terms of live gigs. He jokes and interacts with an enthralled and lively audience but also delivers the songs masterfully, accompanied by only an acoustic guitar but creating an impact for which other musicians may have found the need to deploy a full electric band.

Best heard solo (I had my headphones on and the lights out), Songs For Judy is a magnificent album featuring Young in a laid-back, story-telling mood, rambling sometimes before songs but then launching into outstanding renditions of many songs that fans have by now heard several times but probably never in their fresh and minimalistic forms as they are on the album. In the past 12 years, Young’s archives have released many gems. In early 2018, he released Roxy: Tonight’s The Night Live, a compilation from a gig at Los Angeles’ Roxy Theatre in 1973; and in 2017, he released Hitchhiker, a set of 10 songs in versions that were recorded in 1976 but not released.

Young’s archives project is a gold mine. Besides the regular release of albums, many of them a refreshing blast from the past, on his archives website (Neilyoungarchives.com) you can stream rare recordings; delve into his storied career through his work; and generally be overwhelmed by everything Neil Young. The capacious virtual vault has an appealing retro design, complete with VU meters and switches that can change the compression quality of files, and offers both—a free section and a subscribers-only trove.

The Canadian-born musician is an environmental activist and is involved with many causes, including education for children with disabilities. Some of his projects haven’t been successful: like the one to build a digital music player, named Pono, which would play and store music in high sonic quality files. It bombed. But the archive, which has continued to steadily release new albums, has been soaring. There is even word that a sequel to Songs For Judy could be in the offing. Also curated by Crowe and Bernstein, the buzz is that it could be a set of electric tracks from the same 1976 tour. So, which varietal of Young’s vintage live performances did you say you preferred?

The Lounge List

Five tracks from ‘Songs For Judy’ to bookend this week

1. ‘After The Gold Rush’

2. ‘Mr Soul’

3. ‘The Needle And The Damage Done’

4. ‘Pocahontas’

5. ‘Sugar Mountain’

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

@sanjoynarayan

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