Digging on a previously unreleased session from an enigmatic Greenwich Village folk hero
After Fred Neil landed in New York’s Greenwich Village, he became one of the most famous and influential singer/songwriters of the 60s.
He was a legendary presence on the city folk scene, influencing a generation of performers. (Bob Dylan had an early gig backing Neil on harmonica when he performed.) The list of artists that credit Neil as an influence could fill several articles and include Tim Hardin, David Crosby, The Holy Modal Rounders, John Sebastian and the Lovin’ Spoonful, Barry McGuire and Paul Kantner, pre-Jefferson Airplane/Starship.
It’s been said that Neil was temperamental and a musical perfectionist. He only made three albums during his lifetime – Tear Down the Walls (1964), a duo recording with Vince Martin – and two solo albums, Bleecker & MacDougal (1965) and Fred Neil (1967). Each is perfect in it’s own way, full of songs that most lovers of folk, rock and pop will know by heart. After he cut Fred Neil, he moved to Florida and worked with the Dolphin Research Project for the rest of his life. He never made another album and seldom played live. He died in 2001.
According to the liner notes included in this newly unearthed collection, Neil’s first solo album almost didn’t get made. He had a difficult relationship with the producer, Paul Rothchild, and walked out of the recording sessions several times. The last time he left, his guitar playing friend, Peter Childs, didn’t think he was going to go back. To help Neil calm down, Childs invited him to a session at his apartment at 38 MacDougal. They jammed for half an hour or so, and Neil cooled out enough to return to the studio and finish his debut. Happily, Childs captured that afternoon on tape. He forgot it existed until recently, when he brought it to Delmore Recordings for release.
38 MacDougal includes five songs from Bleecker & MacDougal, one from Fred Neil, and two folk standards. The recording quality is adequate, although Neil’s vocals get lost in the mix at times. “Country Boy” opens things up with strong vocals, Neil’s solid 12 string guitar rhythms and Childs’ blues fills on electric guitar keeping things moving. Neil’s vocal improvisations close the tune on a high note. Neil’s vocals are almost inaudible on “Little Bit Of Rain,” making it sadder than the album version.
Neil’s minimal strumming and rough bluesy inflections make “Blind Man Standin’ by the Road and Cryin’” a stand out. He wails on the verses and trades brief solos with Childs when he’s not singing. Neil wrote “Candy Man” during his brief tenure at the Brill Building. Roy Orbison covered it for a minor hit. The fast tempo and driving rhythm make it sound as sharp as the version on Bleecker & MacDougal. Neil sings the last verse with a growl. Neil and Childs shine on “Sweet Cocaine.” It’s quiet and more intimate than the version on Fred Neil, intensifying its self-destructive aura. The vocal on “Travelin’ Shoes” is almost inaudible, submerged in the exchange between the two guitars.
The set closes with two vocal showcases. “Once I Had a Sweetheart” is a traditional song of lost love that Neil sings in a low grumble that makes it extra poignant. He closes on a jubilant note, using the Dobro fills Childs supplies as a launching platform for long, improvised vocal lines, adding trills that approach yodeling at times.
The versions here won’t replace the more familiar takes on Neil’s fabled solo albums, but they offer some insight into his creative process. His instrumental give and take with Childs is masterful, laying the foundation for the versions with which we’re all familiar.