Sugar Mountain - Live at Canterbury House 1968 continues Neil Young’s project of scraping up the documented leavings of his youth, following 2007’s stellar Live at Massey Hall (and the partially released The Riverboat), as the last portion of the plainly titled Neil Young Archives series. As a live document, Sugar Mountain stands at an interesting point in Young’s timeline: post-Buffalo Springfield, pre-CSNY and several days before the release of his first solo album. Recorded in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the album captures Young at one of his last stops before breaking through to the mainstream, confident and talkative, cosseted in a level of anonymity that wouldn’t last for much longer.
Sugar Mountain is less impressive than Massey Hall but it offers more insight, catching Young at a peak of undiscovered exuberance, sharing loose stories between songs, strumming aimlessly and joking with the crowd. The main prize here is extended talk sessions (called “raps”), which total more than 13 minutes aside from additional chatter surrounding the actual songs. Here Young plays it light, talking about his 1934 Bentley, playing a song he wrote in “five minutes” (“Mr. Soul”) and jokingly asking the audience to tell him which words to change, swearing that he’s never told a lie on stage. Young is funny and disarming, at ease but also shaky at times, a mix of confidence and inexperience that makes for surprisingly entertaining material. Just as amazing is how youthful Young sounds, only days before his 23rd birthday. He talks about working at a Toronto bookstore with an immediacy that’s strange to hear, prompting the realization that as a borderline successful musician this workaday life was something to which he could realistically expect to return.
In terms of the actual music, Sugar Mountain is a wonderfully mixed bag: Springfield’s “Broken Arrow” is spare and carefully paced, closing the album on a sweetly mournful note; “Birds,” which would appear on After the Gold Rush almost two years later, is faster here but has the same aching delivery; and CSNY’s “On the Way Home” appears in a similar budding form. The title track, which Young claims to have written five years earlier, is described as an “oldie.” For all the inexperience displayed throughout Sugar Mountain, it’s refreshing to know that even barely out of his teens Young was already feeling old.