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California Sounds: Neil Young's riveting 1973 live set at the Roxy's opening night

California Sounds: Neil Young's riveting 1973 live set at the Roxy's opening night
Neil Young in the early 1970s. (Gary Burden)

Neil Young, "Roxy: Tonight's the Night Live" (Warner Bros.). This just-issued live recording, which came out late last month, captures a particularly momentous night. Young can explain:

"In 1973, I drove my 1947 Buick Roadmaster, Black Queen, to L.A. from the North, accompanied by Ben Keith," he writes in the liner notes, referencing a longtime collaborator before adding mention of other band mates. "Once we made it to Hollywood, we met up with Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina. Nils Lofgren joined us and we drove to Studio Instrument Rentals on Santa Monica Blvd."

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There, explains Young, they rehearsed the songs being readied for release as "Tonight's the Night." The grim, electrified album is best known for its title track, about the death of roadie and L.A. music fixture Bruce Berry, and is considered by aesthetically sharp Young fans (ahem) to be his best album.

"We had finished recording [the record] and decided to celebrate with a gig at a new club opening on the Sunset Strip, the Roxy," Young continues in the notes, adding that he and the band had so internalized the songs that "we just played them again, the album, top to bottom, two sets a night for a few days. We had a great time."

That they did, and whoever set it to tape deserves a preservation citation. Both a searing, emotional performance of Young and an ace band firing on all cylinders and a time capsule of West Hollywood in the early 1970s, the recording illuminates long-gone magic. Masterfully mixed, you can hear the delicate interplay among Young, guitarist-pianist Lofgren, the late steel guitarist Keith, bassist Talbot and drummer Molina.

"My name is Glenn Miller. Welcome to Miami Beach, ladies and gentlemen," Young quips after introducing the band. The artist, who wore sunglasses through the entire set save for a brief moment when he deigned to remove them for the crowd, seems to be in a great mood in the then-new room, opened by an ownership group that included Lou Adler, David Geffen and Young's manager Elliot Roberts.

One measure of the distance between then and now: When Young introduces Geffen, the crowd offers a vague, unknowing applause. Another measure: Near the beginning of the set, he asks women to jump up on stage to dance topless, and a lot of people cheer. (Later he shouts-out the famed stripper Candy Barr.)

Witty as he may be between songs, thematically, Young's got murder, heroin, solitude and existential dread on his mind. While introducing the bloodbath of a song, "Tired Eyes," he reassuringly says, "We're doing okay in the '70s, we really are. History's coming back. Everything's okay."

A few seconds later, he's working the opening tangle of electric guitar in "Tired Eyes." The opening couplet hits like a bullet: "Well they shot four men in a cocaine deal/They left 'em lying in an open field."

Young delivers the chorus to "Tired Eyes" not so much singing as imploring, begging to an unnamed friend, "Please take my advice. Open up your tired eyes."

It's a memorable rendition, one delivered by a lyricist then in his mid-20s and at the peak of his powers. At one point, Young sighs as if he's already seen it all, though. "Ten years in the business, folks," he says. "Sometimes I feel like Perry Como."

Little did he know that he was just getting started.

For tips, records, snapshots and stories on Los Angeles music culture, follow Randall Roberts on Twitter and Instagram: @liledit. Email: randall.roberts@latimes.com.

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