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At last, Neil journeys through his past. . .

Neil Young fanatics have been hearing about his plans to dust off his extensive archives for public consumption for so long that some had given up hope they'd ever live long enough to see their release. But this month the mammoth 10-disc, 128-track treasure trove, complete with a 236-page hardback book, finally emerged blinking into the world.

Amazingly, the retrospective only covers the years 1963-'72, so we can expect another three volumes to come down the line, just like the staggered release of Bob Dylan's Bootleg Series. The lovingly assembled box set takes the form of an intimate scrapbook of Young's past, and takes in his earliest recordings with The Squires and the Mynah Birds (the latter fronted by the late Rick James) back in his native Canada through to his time with psychedelic folk-rock pioneers Buffalo Springfield, which he formed with his friend Stephen Stills after, as legend has it, driving down to Los Angeles in a converted hearse.

The archive includes outtakes, demos and unreleased material up to the seminal first batch of solo albums that included the landmark After The Goldrush and Harvest.

With the Blu-ray and DVD versions also featuring live concert films and the rarely seen feature film Journey Through The Past directed by Young himself under the pseudonym Bernard Shakey, one can trace how a callow, fresh-faced teenage hippie from Winnipeg, Manitoba, developed into one of rock's most titanic figures.

Here is Neil in his prime as the ultimate solo acoustic troubadour, achingly sensitive and plaintive, a voice aquiver with yearning and wise beyond his years. And here he is too as the beating heart of the hydra-headed grunge monster that is Crazy Horse, whose every squall-of-noise guitar solo could lay waste to entire civilisations.

That such contradictions could happily co-exist in the same artist is part of what makes Young special. Neil is the greatest lead guitar player I've ever seen in the flesh. True, he can sometimes overdo the solo-ing, so lost is he in the moment. But there are times when his communion with his favoured black Gibson Les Paul becomes just transcendental.

He has played many memorable shows in Ireland over the years, a country for which his late dad Scott had a lot of affection, having lived for a time in Sutton in north Dublin.

I first saw Neil live headlining Slane Castle in 1993 with Stax legends Booker T & the MGs as his backing band. He opened with a turbo-charged version of 'Mr Soul' that left me open-jawed. For the encore, he brought on Eddie Vedder to help him sing 'Rockin' in the Free World', a friendship that was cemented when Young asked Pearl Jam to be his backing band on his 1995 Mirror Ball album and on the subsequent tour, which I caught in the RDS.

Pearl Jam were no match for his beloved Crazy Horse, though, who razed the roof of the Point a year or two later. The understanding built up between Young and his bandmates Billy Talbot, Ralph Molina and Frank Sampedro over the decades was not something that can be replicated easily. In many ways, this quartet are the perfect band, the Brazil 1970 World Cup team of rock.

Neil then returned on his tod for a trio of feverishly anticipated acoustic shows in Vicar St in 2003. He played the whole of Greendale, his concept album about a fictional Californian family, front-to-back to a patient but slightly bewildered audience. Young clearly enjoyed sketching out the characters in a series of witty back-stories in between the songs -- he also shot an eccentric movie to complement the album.

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Then last year, Neil played Malahide Castle on the same night that Spain won the Euros in Vienna. But I'm sure even Fernando could have heard the drums.

I travelled to Cork the following night to catch him Live At The Marquee, this time with a line-up that included his wife Pegi on backing vocals and the musicians who played on his 1990 'comeback' album Freedom. In a nod to his fellow 1960s icons, Neil tipped his hat to Dylan, Hendrix and the Beatles in a set that ended with a 25-minute version of 'No Hidden Path' from his recent Chrome Dreams album -- even the diehard Neil fans in the audience felt he strayed over into self-indulgence here. But mostly he confirmed what a compelling performer he remains even in his early 60s.

The same line-up returns tomorrow night to Dublin's 02 Arena -- Neil's first at the newfangled venue. My colleague Eamon Sweeney raved about his performance at Barcelona's Primavera festival on these pages only a few weeks ago. So it promises to be one of the highlights of the summer.

Neil Young plays the O2 tomorrow night. nkelly@independent.ie

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