The Best Neil Young live albums

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the best neil young live albums

I’ve never seen Neil Young live. That feels like a massive oversight on my part, particularly because I’ve loved his music for a long time and he’s one of only a few legends left on my live music bucket list that I’ve never managed to catch in real time. (Tom Waits is another, and he hasn’t toured in over a decade; Springsteen is another, and well, I was a little low on funds last time he headed this way.)

But while I’ve never borne witness to the real thing, I have heard a lot of Neil Young live albums. In fact, he just released one last week, Fu##in’ Up!, which leans heavily on newer recordings of songs from his 1990 album Ragged Glory. That’s, in fact, the 32nd live album in his catalog—more or less, depending on how you look at it. Which outnumbers even Bob Dylan or David Bowie live albums, though still far short of the eighty-something released by Miles Davis (with whom Young once shared the stage).

Of late, I’ve grown a little obsessive about hearing live recordings of artists I’ve never had the chance to see, though Neil Young is one still touring and turning it up loud. Still, his archive of live albums sprawling and diverse, covering a career of more than 50 years with a number of different backing bands (Crazy Horse, Stray Gators, Promise of the Real) as well as solo recordings and even MTV’s Unplugged. But of these 32 records, which are truly the best Neil Young live albums?

In this installment of In Concert, I attempt to answer that question as best I can, through a highly subjective listening session. I’ve included the top five because I don’t see the need to go through all 32. You can make a case for quite a few I didn’t include here, including archival releases Roxy: Tonight’s the Night Live and Live at the Cellar Door. Less so for mid-career milemarkers Year of the Horse and Road Rock Vol. 1, and at a certain point throughout the Performance Archives, redundancy does start to set in (a lot of them were recorded in either 1970 or 1971, and as great an era as that was for Neil Young overall, unless you’re an absolute diehard fan, you probably don’t need all of them—even if they’re all pretty strong on the whole). So let’s get to it.

Note: When you buy something through our affiliate links, Treble receives a commission. All albums included are chosen by our editors and contributors.

5. Crazy Horse at the Fillmore 1970 (2006)

The first entry in Neil Young’s Archives Performance Series justifies the existence of the series as a whole from the get-go, the equivalent of opening a live set with “Cinnamon Girl” or “Cortez the Killer”—the latter of which he recently did in San Diego, kicking off his spring tour with Crazy Horse. This record, an abbreviated set of songs performed at the Fillmore East in New York City in 1970, captures the band roaring through songs from the Everybody Knows This is Nowhere era, and doing so with a rowdy energy that even rivals their studio counterparts (“Cowgirl in the Sand” in particular). It’s an incomplete picture, including only about half the set that Young and Crazy Horse would perform four times in two days (Miles Davis in full Bitches Brew electric mode was also on the bill). That’s perhaps the only complaint to be had about what’s a raucous, plugged-in set that’s pretty much all deep cuts, including non-album track “Winterlong,” the long-shelved and inexplicably released on Everybody’s Rockin’ “Wonderin'” (which, here, Young says is going to be on the next album, After the Gold Rush), and “Come On Baby, Let’s Go Downtown,” sung by Danny Whitten, and later featured on the devastating Tonight’s the Night. As it is, this is pretty much a perfect live album, but the other six songs (including “Cinnamon Girl”) might bump it up a placement or two.

Listen/Buy: Spotify | Amazon

4. Live at Massey Hall 1971 (2007)

The second installment of Young’s Archives Performance Series expands the tracklist and running time of its predecessor with a pristine recording of a solo live set captured in 1971 at Toronto’s Massey Hall after the release of the previous year’s After the Gold Rush. There’s no Crazy Horse here, just Young on guitar and piano, making his way through what’s already a spectacular catalog of songs despite it being relatively early in his career. A good helping of Gold Rush can be heard here, as well as some early versions of songs from Harvest, like “Old Man,” some Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young material (“Ohio,” “Helpless”), even some On the Beach three years ahead of schedule (“See the Sky About to Rain”). The sound quality is incredible, Young bridges each song with some loose banter, and even his most ragged rockers translate brilliantly to an acoustic approach (particularly “Cowgirl in the Sand”—again). Under ordinary circumstances, a live album of this quality might rise to the top, but it’s hard not to miss the sneering roar of Crazy Horse. That’s not a criticism, really, just a preference. Either way, phenomenal live album.

Listen/Buy: Spotify | Rough Trade (vinyl)

best neil young live albums - Time Fades Away

3. Time Fades Away (1973)

Those who read our list of the 50 Best Live Albums will probably note that the album we chose to represent Young was the curious Time Fades Away, an album that Young himself more or less disavowed for much of his career because of his own frustrations with the tour on which it was recorded. It’s also a legendary release among fans, the first installment of his fabled “Ditch” trilogy. Young was dissatisfied with the performances of his backing band the Stray Gators, and probably even more dissatisfied with the amount of money he agreed to pay them ($100,000 each, which Wikipedia says is about three quarters of a million per musician, by today’s money). It also took place during Young’s lowest period of morale during his professional career, in part due to his own disillusionment with commercial success and the grief over the death of his longtime bandmate Danny Whitten. It is, however, a fantastic album. It comprises all previously unreleased material up to that point, presented almost more like a studio album, albeit one that happened to be recorded live. It’s rowdy and freewheeling, benefiting from the live energy if at times a bit rougher around the edges. So why isn’t it number one, especially since we already canonized it? That ultimately comes down to what you want from a Neil Young live album, and while this satisfies most of the qualifications, part of what continues to draw me into any artist’s live archive is hearing how familiar material is transformed in front of an audience. The highlights on several other albums here are songs like “Cowgirl in the Sand” and “Tonight’s the Night,” which continue to evolve over time into something beyond their studio counterparts. That being said, the material here is fantastic, particularly the opening title track, with Jack Nitzsche’s honky-tonk piano rolls, and the grungy swagger of closer “Last Dance.” An essential Neil Young release one way or another, no matter how it fares in this arbitrary ranking.

Listen/Buy: Spotify | Rough Trade (vinyl)

best neil young live albums - Live Rust

2. Rust Never Sleeps/Live Rust (1979)

I’ve included two albums in the number two spot, which technically makes this a top 6, but it’s complicated: Rust Never Sleeps is presented more as a studio album, even though the bulk of its contents was recorded live and then overdubbed in the studio. As a standalone album, live or not, it’s one of the absolute best in Neil Young’s body of work as a whole—top five, easily. But the question of whether it’s a proper live album is worth asking, given its addition of studio production. No problem: Enter Live Rust, the proper live album companion to Rust Never Sleeps, recorded during the touring behind that album and featuring about half that album’s songs. Except the live versions don’t necessarily build much on that album’s solid foundation; the twin pillars of “My My, Hey Hey” and “Hey Hey, My My” are pretty close to the original recordings, and “Powderfinger” doesn’t have quite the raucous punch as the Rust Never Sleeps version (though “Sedan Delivery” is a bit more of a ripper here). Though where it does excel is in the material that gets punched up through a noisier, late ’70s version of Crazy Horse, like one of the heavier takes on “Cinnamon Girl” on record, or a particular barnburning take on “Tonight’s the Night” (which, it appears, is recurrent throughout the catalog—despite how affectingly defeated Young sounds on the studio version, onstage it becomes something even greater). As a cross-section of Young’s greatest material from the ’70s and late ’60s, it’s hard to beat, though it does feel at least partially redundant. That said, it’s damn near the best live document of Neil and his band out there. If not for one ornery set from a little over a decade later.

Listen/Buy: Spotify (2) | Amazon (vinyl)

best neil young live albums - Weld

1. Weld (1991)

There’s a certain irony in Young returning to his material from the early ’90s for Fu##in’ Up, considering the best live album he and Crazy Horse released was captured during the tour behind Ragged Glory. That said, only a handful of songs from that album are featured on Weld, a live double album released in conjunction with Arc. The latter is an experimental noise collage, made while Young was on tour with Sonic Youth, and it’s a fascinating case of a new generation’s wild and unpredictable influence on the generation that influenced them. Weld isn’t exactly that, though. It’s essentially a double album of Crazy Horse sounding their absolute best at being Crazy Horse, bashing and scraping their way through some particularly thunderous versions of songs from throughout Young’s catalog, going all the way back to “Cinnamon Girl,” along with some curiosities like a dramatic reinterpretation of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind,” played over air raid sirens. (The tour, it should be noted, coincided with the 1991 Gulf War.) The opening “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)” is even gnarlier and noisier than the original version from Rust Never Sleeps, and there’s a dramatic and sinister groove in the extended intro to “Tonight’s the Night.” You could put this on shuffle and only ever land on a highlight—”Rockin’ in the Free World,” “Cortez the Killer,” and “F!#*in’ Up” among the 16 searing, snarling performances here—which is why it tops this abbreviated list.

Listen/Buy: Spotify | Amazon

The Best Show(s) I Saw in April

Starting this month, I’m expanding my In Concert coverage to include, at the end of each month, a short recap of the best show I saw that month. Since this month I caught two runaway amazing shows within weeks of each other, I’m including them both.

Ratboys – Richmond Music Hall

Last year we gave our coveted Album of the Year honors to Ratboys for their incredible 2023 album The Window. I didn’t get a chance to hear those songs live until the beginning of April, however, when the second leg of their tour swung through Richmond. Regardless, the wait was more than worth it. Their live presence more than matches their melodic, emotionally affecting songwriting, and I can’t emphasize this enough: Their vocal harmonies sounded absolutely phenomenal live. That’s as much an endorsement of the venue’s sound as it is a word of praise for the band, but songs like “The Window” and “Morning Zoo” nonetheless gave me chills.

Waxahatchee – The National

Since this was just last night, it’s still fresh in my mind, and man, what a spectacular performance. I caught Katie Crutchfield live first in 2015 in support of Ivy Tripp at a much smaller venue, which was a bit more punk rock, for lack of a better description. Yet when she walked onstage in silver platform boots, against a ’70s-style backdrop of lights somewhere between classic Nashville and the Merv Griffin Show, I knew straightaway she and her band were ready to give us a great show. In a lengthy set featuring about two dozen songs, they drew heavily from new album Tigers Blood and its predecessor Saint Cloud, with a few standouts from her Jess Williamson collaboration Plains, in addition to a Lucinda Williams cover. For probably obvious reasons, none of the early Waxahatchee material made it into the set, and while I do like those records very much, she’s musically in a much different place now and very much for the better (though I’d be curious to hear how a song like “Air” would sound with some pedal steel). And much like the Ratboys show, the vocal harmonies were off the charts. Crutchfield is an incredible vocal talent in her own right, but when harmonizing with her bandmates, the results were transcendent, particularly the beautiful and deeply moving “Right Back to It.”

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