Sound: At one time folk/rock legend Neil Young stated, “You can call me erratic, but I’ve been consistent about it, consistently erratic”. There’s perhaps no truer of a statement for Young, who has bounced steadily between traditional rock and a more earthy folk sound throughout his career. Rather than showcasing his current songwriting efforts to follow up last year’s “Le Noise”, the former Buffalo Springfield guitarist has opted to dig into his archives.
“A Treasure” is 12-track live album recorded back during his 1984-85 tour with the highly impressing backing band, the International Harvesters. Never has Young been so thickly entrenched in the roots of country, a deviation that if anything does convey a no-frills, honest message. At the heart of the 12 tracks is the group of amazing musicians that fill each song with a bevy of beautifully crafted solos.
A good deal of the tracks carry the same traditional format, with a heavy storytelling vibe during the verses and a catchy, instantly memorable chorus. There are multiple breaks within each cut, allowing for players Ben Keith (steel and slide guitar), Rufus Thibodeaux (fiddle), and Spooner Oldham and Hargus “Pig” Robbins (both on piano) to enhance the a fairly straightforward concept tenfold.
If you don’t care for country, “A Treasure” will not be the record for you. But in terms of intriguing/entertaining lyrical content and all-out musicianship, there is a lot to be said about this album from over 25 years ago. Among the highlights are several unreleased songs, including the entrancing “Grey Riders”. That particular track features some amazing, effects-laden guitar work that is reminiscent of some of Young’s earlier rock offerings with Buffalo Springfield. “Let Your Fingers Do The Walking” is infectious through and through, with classic old-school country lyrics and impeccable fiddle work.
“Nothing Is Perfect” takes the tempo down a notch and is a fairly pensive tune that showcases tasteful, restrained piano lines interwoven through a good deal of it. Broaching blues territory is “SOul Of A Woman”, while “It Might Have Been” feels like a slice out of the earliest groundbreaking country artists’ musical catalog.
Lyrics and Singing: While at times the lyrics can be repetitive or seemingly simple, there’s an earthy honesty to it all. And on top of that, you get enough pithy, humorous content elsewhere to keep you entertained. The best cuts lyrically are the witty “Let Your Fingers Do The Walking” (“I can’t reach out and touch you; You’re hung up on the line; I’m your disconnected number now; And you’re a private line”) and the ode to American workers “Motor City” (“My old car keeps breaking down; My new car ain’t from Japan; There’s already too many Toyotas in this town”).
The latter song’s lyrics will likely evoke some type of reaction good or bad, just as the crowd on the live version can be heard cheering wildly (although not up front in the audio mix). Neil Young doesn’t try to sugarcoat anything he does, and it’s that kind of in-your-face approach to his music that really does deserve respect.
Impression: It was an interesting choice on Young’s part to dig into archives from the 1980’s, but it’s commendable that he allows the International Harvesters another opportunity to be in the spotlight. Although there is an earthy sweetness to the general bulk of the 12 tracks’ core songwriting, it really is the soloing aspect of the record that comes to the forefront time and time again. If anything it shows yet another facet to that “consistently erratic” godfather of grunge we’ve come to know, and his ability to hop from genre to genre proves he deserves to be considered an icon at this stage of his career.
A few explanations are in order to understand what’s going on with this new live album. It contains material from Young’s ’84-’85 tour with the International Harvesters—an all-star crew of country musicians who backed him on his Old Ways album and made notable appearances with him at Live Aid, Farm Aid, and Austin City Limits. Old Ways, released by Geffen, was Young’s most solid country effort to date and revealed his sympathy for the plight of the American farmer. Geffen and Young famously sued each other shortly thereafter, with Geffen challenging Young’s foray into country as a commercially damaging act. Meanwhile, recordings of that celebrated tour, which included unreleased songs like “Nothing is Perfect” and “Grey Riders,”have remained in limbo until now.
A Treasure is a 12-song time capsule of that tour and includes five unreleased tracks that Young fans have been wondering about for 25 years. It’s being offered in the standard mp3 and CD formats, as well as a CD/Blu-ray package that aims to give fans an offering in the audio connoisseur-preferred Blu-ray format, even though no known video exists to give viewers moving visuals of some of the performances. Blu-ray viewers see the album cover on the screen during much of the album. Since something is better than nothing, existing video of Neil performing some of the songs is synced up with the audio on the Blu-ray, even though a few different musicians rotated in and out of the International Harvesters and this video may not accurately show who can be heard playing, if that makes sense.
This is a welcome concession for Young fans that relish a Blu-ray listening experience. But it’s a bit ironic since the mix, which isn’t bad at all, is still limited by the quality of the source recordings. In a video on his website, Young admits, “we didn’t use good sound in the first place,” while emphasizing that the recordings are “… the best versions of these songs.”
With that in mind, listeners can approach the album with a new-old-stock kind of expectation, which is appropriate considering the contents. Standout Ben Keith, the late steel player who can be heard on Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces,”as well as Young’s original version of “Old Man,” adds rich textures of lap and pedal steel throughout the album. His country-western (as they used to call it) authenticity is matched by Rufus Thibodeaux’s fiddle. Right out of the gate, the two set the mood for the album on the opening track, “Amber Jean”— a Texas two-step number recorded when Young and the band appeared on the Nashville Now TV show with Ralph Emery. Other standouts include the honky tonk-infused “Let Your Fingers Do the Walking,” a bluegrass-meets-rock version of “Get Back to the Country,” and a locomotive-strong performance of “Southern Pacific.”
The band’s ability to seamlessly fuse a wide range of country—from barroom stomp to Texas swing—with Young’s characteristic strained crooning and a bit of his trademark gritty guitar comping, shows why Young’s instincts were dead-on as usual. Young had been a fine collaborator many times in his career up to that point and had drawn profusely from country music, so it’s no surprise that he and the International Harvesters were such a good fit. This material is as strong as Young fans will remember it being on those iconic television performances.
The ’80s will forever be identified with Flock of Seagulls haircuts, DX7 keyboard sounds, and spandex rock, but there was also Neil Young, as usual, being his erratic self—collaborating and creating music that is indeed a treasure to revisit after a few decades.
Are you ready for the country? So sings Neil Young on the song of the same name, the second track of his new live release, A Treasure. But this should probably be the first track on the album, since it’s more than just a fast, raunchy, countrified blues number; it’s something like an aesthetic standpoint. Young asks us if we can handle this side of him. Are you ready for the country? If you are, then you need to get this album.
This ain’t your father’s Neil Young, unless of course your dad listens to Waylon Jennings, Townes Van Zandt, and/or once owned a confederate flag. Neil was a musical shapeshifter in the 1980s, after a decade and a half of establishing himself as classic rock royalty in bands like Buffalo Springfield, CSN&Y, and Crazy Horse. As part of the burgeoning acid folk/folk rock/psychedelic scene of late ’60s Los Angeles, he brought an edge to the soft vocal harmonies of Crosby, Stills, and Nash, and his biting guitar rocks your inner core on songs like “Ohio” and “Southern Man”.
In 1982, Young released Trans, a synth-heavy rock album that could almost be the soundtrack to the original Tron. 1983 saw the release of Everybody’s Rockin’, an album of rockabilly-flavored 1950s rock and roll. And in 1985, Neil dropped Old Ways, an album that his label didn’t want to release, saying that it was too country.
In the midst of that creative period, Young toured with the International Harvesters, a group of musicians who could revel in the country twang of the Old Ways material. Their concerts, in 1984 and 1985, are captured here for the first time on A Treasure. Of course, Neil Young is no stranger to southern music; “Are You Ready for the Country?” was first recorded on the 1972 gem Harvest, and the country sound has always been integral to this singer-songwriter’s world. The live version of “Are You Ready…” brings out the country stomp, played at a much faster and more aggressive clip than the original studio version. Rufus Thibodeaux’s fiddle flies out in front, with Young’s phlanged guitar substituting for the Hank Williams twang of honky-tonk.
A Treasure was cobbled together from various recordings made during Neil’s fall 1984 and 1985 tours, but it arcs like a real show, coming to a frenzied peak with the most rocking selection on here, the album-closing “Grey Riders”. Never before released, and long considered a fan favorite, “Grey Riders” is a monster of Young’s “Cinnamon Girl” classic rock sound. Thibodeaux’s crying fiddle is still there, and the fast country backbeat dominates the verses and chorus, but it’s all about the heavily distorted, syncopated guitar riff in between verses, and Young’s wailing, over-driven guitar solo.
Along the way, A Treasure visits a variety of Southern styles. “It Might Have Been” is fast Nashville sound, dominated by fiddle and Young’s nasally voice, with longtime Young collaborator Ben Keith on pedal steel guitar. “Bound for Glory” is a dramatic narrative ballad, a sad country love story. The soulful country ballad “Nothing Is Perfect” features gospel backing vocals, which lend strong and commanding support to Neil’s reedy tenor, while bowed bass and barrel-house piano contribute that old-time homey sound. Banjo adds a frolicky bluegrass feel to “Get Back to the Country”, as Young sings, “Back where it all began.” It’s high-powered, über fast rock bluegrass, with electric guitars and drums commingling with the fiddle, banjo, and pedal steel.
There’s plenty of harder stuff on here, too. “Motor City” has gritty guitars, and the working class ethos of ’80s rockers like George Thorogood or John Mellencamp lurks in the background. Except that Neil Young brings more humor, more artistry, and more rawness to the sound than either of those commercial rockers. “Soul of a Woman” is a 12-bar blues, hearkening back to a ’50s rock and roll sound. It’s the country tinge that Elvis, Carl Perkins, and Buddy Holly had, but with more grit, more drive, more overdrive on the guitars (and a totally bad-ass blues fiddle solo).
The nearly eight-minute “Southern Pacific”–a chugging lament on train culture–is the centerpiece of the second half of the album. The train screams into your headphones with a fast rock backbeat and lyrics full of melancholy and nostalgia. Anthony Crawford’s totally raw banjo solo, complete with noisy fret scratching, sounds like the sound of rusty train brakes. Young’s voice soars with urgency, delivering a commanding performance of this socially conscious tune, channeling the plight of the American worker into song.
The album is being released in a variety of media, including a deluxe CD/Blu-ray combo pack featuring live footage of the ’84-’85 Harvesters when available. Longtime Neil Young fans and completists will salivate that this incredibly fruitful collaboration is finally an official release and that songs like “Grey Riders”, which previously existed only as grainy bootlegs, have been lovingly remastered. This was Young’s offering on Record Store Day, telling something of the affection he has for this time period. Yes, it’s a live album, but not “this is what he’s been doing recently.”
If anything, this feels more like a vault release of a new band with familiar faces. Above all, you can feel the exuberance that comes from playing raw, unbridled live music, and there are few from that generation who excel at this better than Neil Young. Old man, take a look at your life, indeed.