On Jan. 22, 1971, Neil Young sat for an acoustic performance at the Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford, Connecticut. Although the concert was recorded for presentation on German television, the resulting analog tapes were lost to the archive. 50 years later, on March 26, 2021, this segment of the Journey Through the Past Tour was made available to the public, presented in the live album Young Shakespeare. This stands as the oldest known live recording of the musician to date, and he has even described it as “the best ever . . . one of the most pure-sounding acoustic performances we have in the archive.”
This is not the first time Young has reached into the vault for vintage recordings; he released Live at Massey Hall 1971 in 2007 and Way Down in the Rust Bucket (Live) with Crazy Horse earlier this year. But while these recordings were rock celebrations, Young Shakespeare is an intimate interlude — characterized only by Young’s vocals, a guitar, a piano and harmonics. With this stripped-down performance, Young invites listeners to embark on an introspective journey through time, and he breathes pure poetry at each destination.
To be, or not to be: That is the question, as Young explores the liminal space between youth and adulthood, life and death. Throughout Young Shakespeare, Young demonstrates an acute awareness of the passage of time; the melancholy of lost youth is interwoven through each lilt of his signature wail. Whether he’s recalling the deaths of Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin before “The Needle and the Damage Done” or comparing himself to a 70-year-old foreman in “Old Man,” Young continually grapples with loss and old age, and these themes assume even more weight 50 years down the line.
Accompanied only by the bare basics, Young imbues his set with a certain sentimentality. In his solo rendition of “Ohio” — originally performed alongside David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash following the 1970 Kent State University Shooting — Young trades in revolutionary grit for meditative sorrow. Though this unplugged version lacks the alluring harmonies and energetic guitar solos offered by the supergroup, Young’s hushed vocals and acoustic guitar complement one another in a deeply moving manner. It feels as though Young is in the same room with you, memorializing the “four dead in Ohio” in a trailing lament.
Even when he’s at his most vulnerable, Young interjects with his signature dry humor. As he makes the transition from guitar to piano, he jokingly warns that he is likely to make a mistake. This self-deprecation receives immediate laughter, but it is soon lost in the tenderness of “A Man Needs a Maid/Heart of Gold (Medley).” “A man is afraid,” he sings as he comes to the realization that he cannot always take care of himself. He openly confronts his own mortality, and even though he is only 25 at the time, he painfully admits, “I’m getting old.”
It is through this combination of humor and honest vulnerability that Young balances sorrow with subtle optimism. Whether he’s making idiomatic confessions (“it’s only castles burning”) in “Don’t Let it Bring You Down” or joking between anxiety-laden verses of “Sugar Mountain,” Young is in a constant search for the light at the end of the tunnel. Even in the darkness, he never quite relinquishes hope.
Whether he is 25 or 75, Neil Young is a true musical veteran, and if Young Shakespeare is any indication, his poetic prowess stands the test of time. The songs may not be new, but they are delivered with an evergreen introspection that complements their nostalgic appeal. Thus, even as Young takes listeners on a journey through the past, his messages are inextricably interwoven with the present, and the result is a moving performance that will be remembered well into the future.