Along Neil Young’s lengthy discography are a series of records sometimes called “The Ditch Trilogy.” They include the long-deleted live record Time Fades Away, and two studio records: On the Beach and Tonight’s the Night.
While the latter is now seen as one of his creative peaks, back in 1973 it was seen as too dark, too morbid, and too weird for release. It ended up sitting on the shelf until Reprise released it in the summer of 1975. But by then, the music was familiar to some fans: in the fall of 1973, Young put together a band and toured the record his label wouldn’t release.
Roxy: Tonight’s the Night Live comes from several of these shows, all recorded live during a residency at Los Angeles’ Roxy nightclub.
While this tour has something of a reputation for being a real downer, Roxy shows him and his band joking on stage, engaging with the audience and playing a loose, compelling brand of country-tinged rock.
Like most of his live sets from the period, it opens and closes with “Tonight’s the Night,” where Ben Keith’s pedal steel and Nils Lofgrin’s tinkling piano give the music a loose, barroom vibe and Young’s singing turns into a hoarse shout, aided by the backing vocals of his band. From there it’s a dive into a loose polka and Neil introducing “a few new songs for you tonight.”
Of course, it was more than a few. “Mellow My Mind,” “World on A String,” and “Speaking Out” were all unreleased at the time. And compared to the sunshine of the previous year’s Harvest, they’re like a light bulb blowing out. Against Keith’s slow, hazy lines and Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina’s plodding rhythm, Young sounds like he’s going deep inside himself and for the music. “I’ll be watching my TV, and it’ll be watching you,” he sings on “Speakin’ Out,” and it sounds more like a threat than longing.
It’s not all doom and gloom, however.
Between songs, Young jokes and banters with the crowd: tales about Candy Barr, a shout out to David Geffen, and introduces himself as Glenn Miler. He tries a bit of world building, welcoming to audience to Miami Beach and reminding them how everything’s cheaper than it looks.
Part of what Young’s long running Archives series does is draw a line along his creative progression on stage. Through it, you can see him evolving from a longhaired folkie to a, well, longhaired rocker. And the contrast between this and Live at the Fillmore East is a stunning one. In just over three years, Young’s stage presence has grown: he’s bantering and joking with the crowd.
Interestingly, Young’s playing with the same rhythm as he did three years earlier, but the vibe couldn’t be more different.
The music isn’t as jammed out, but has more texture and emotional depth. It’s loose, verging on coming apart, but has a ramshackle charm his Crazy Horse records never have: everything sounds like it’s about to fall apart, but never does. Key to this process was Keith, Young’s pedal steel player. His playing compliments Young’s voice, which isn’t always able to carry the song against a full band, giving it a fuller sound.
It also sets the tone for this record: country rock, but in a way Nashville would never have dream of.
“Roll Another Number,” is a dark tale about being drunk and screwed up, and played like the Roxy was a honky-tonk, but it’s miles away from the outlaw-style stuff that Waylon and Willie were cooking up. If Harvest showed Young’s interest in the sound of country, this shows his interest in the genre’s darker undertones: Hank Williams lashing out at his ex-wife, the hellscape and hurt of the Louvin Brothers, and the heartbreak of George Jones.
The record closes with a track that’s not on Tonight’s the Night: “Walk On,” which here swaggers back and forth with Young and Lofgrin pounding at their guitars and the rhythm section building up a Crazy Horse-style groove. It’s one of the only moments where the band really cuts loose, and as such it shows Young could still rock out if he wanted to. “Here we all man, all partying” says Young by way of an intro, “but the sun’s gone down.”
But that was especially the point of Tonight’s the Night. The music’s reflective of a dark period of Young’s life, and shows how successfully he was able to turn tragedy into art. But more than that, it’s a welcome peek into an overlooked period of Young’s career: there have been bootlegs of this tour, but they’re muddy and distant. Here, with a crisp and clear sound, you can hear how compelling Young was in fall 1973. Recommended.
Freelance writer and music fan, whose writing has appeared on The Good Point, The Toronto Review of Books, and CTV.ca, among other places. Favorite albums: Dig Me Out, Live-Evil, Decade.