Dreamin’ Man Live ‘92
Harvest Moon was a lovely Neil Young album. It’s hard to deny the sweeping weightlessness conveyed not just by Young’s tender vocals, but also by the barely-there vapor-like organ work of Spooner Oldham and the defiantly tearful pedal steel of Ben Keith. The album, released in 1992, was heralded as a “return-to-form” for the then-middle-aged Young—finally, after making his more passive fans wait two decades, he released the sensitive singer-songwriter album they’d been itching for since 1972’s Harvest. There was a huge publicity push. Young agreed to more interviews than he had his entire career. And, three months after it’s release, the album went platinum in February of 1993. Now, 17 years later, Young gives us Dreamin’ Man Live ‘92, a rephrasing and re-sequencing of that album culled from the various solo performances he did prior to Harvest Moon’s release.
Why? This question seems to be dogging other critics as they express their frustration with this release. True, the passive listener will likely not hear much difference between these versions and their more polished twins on Harvest Moon. But I don’t believe this album is for the passive listener. It is, as with all of his recent Archives Performance Series releases, for nerds like me—the Neil obsessive. It’s also for Neil himself and, maybe, for the members of his inner circle who griped that the finished product never lived up to its potential. In other words, Harvest Moon was a collection of powerful songs whose emotional impact was lost in the layers of clean production and soft arrangements.
The songs he wrote for Harvest Moon dwelled on some deep subject matter—how does one keep the old flame burning, how does one move forward in life without burying the past, and what does one do with the past anyway when it keeps coming back to haunt you? With Dreamin Man, that subject matter is as exposed as raw nerve endings. Alone on stage, Young strips the material to the bone and what’s left is an alternate look at Harvest Moon that is sometimes chilling, sometimes warm, and consistently beautiful.
Arranged in chronological order in terms of performance date, the album opens with the title track and ends with “War of Man”. Without the arrangements, this album is all about nuance—listen to the brush of Neil’s thumb against the strings of his Martin guitar on “From Hank to Hendrix”, the bruised vocals and aching piano of “Such A Woman”, and the fret buzz on “Natural Beauty”, and the overall amount of air and organic echo surrounding Neil onstage. Though they are the same songs heard on Harvest Moon, they couldn’t be more stylistically different. In fact, several of the songs, such as “War of Man” and “Unknown Legend” now sound like some of the most powerful numbers in the man’s deep catalog, whereas on Harvest Moon they felt somewhat weak and uncertain.
Regardless, this will not keep some from griping. Why buy this album if you already have the same songs elsewhere? Let me put it to you this way: If Harvest Moon was a leafy tree in September, then Dreamin’ Man Live ‘92 is the same tree but in January—branches bare, as stark and lovely as calligraphy.