In 1984, Neil Young certainly was. His Geffen Records debut, Trans, had just a couple of years earlier plunged Young into a “high tech” world of vocoders, synthesizers and dance beats while the singer ruminated about “The Computer Age,” “Computer Cowboy” and “Transformer Man.” 1983’s Everybody’s Rockin’ was an exercise in recreating rockabilly, with Young’s band billed as The Shocking Pinks. Originals like “Kinda Fonda Wanda” blended right in with covers of “Mystery Train” and “Cry, Cry, Cry.” Had Young lost his mind? Was he just being willful? Geffen certainly thought so, suing the singer for producing deliberately non-commercial LPs not characteristic of his past work. (Label owner David Geffen later apologized to Young.)
After the failure of Everybody’s Rockin’, the always-unpredictable musician followed yet another muse and hit the road with the International Harvesters during 1984 and 1985. The music produced by Young and this group was pure country-and-western, and if the sound was alien in the pop world of 1984, it wasn’t a complete departure like Trans or Everybody’s Rockin’. Young’s most successful album ever, 1972’s Harvest, was “country,” albeit by way of Laurel Canyon. Touring with the International Harvesters, Young offered up rollicking, twangy, rootsy music performed to audiences in the heartlands, often at rodeos and state fairs. Twelve tracks from their tour have been released by Reprise as A Treasure on LP and CD (Reprise, 2011, various cat. nos.) as the ninth entry in the Neil Young Archives Performance Series. It proves to be a robust, surprisingly joyful listen from an artist in the midst of a controversial period.
A Treasure finds the singer, always somewhat inscrutable, thumbing his nose at both the prevailing musical mores of the 1980s (which he had flirted with on Trans) and his own rock legacy by reveling in Americana. Despite his Canadian roots, Young had always had an ear for American roots music. But rather than being a straightforward collection of live country tunes, A Treasure also reflects the many sides of the singer/songwriter.
In a feature shot in 1985 and included on the Blu-Ray edition, Young is described by an interviewer as “erratic,” which the singer quickly corrects to “consistently erratic.” Promoting his country album Old Ways, he’s then asked whether he’s become “more conservative,” with respect to both his music and his personal views. So we have the dedicated environmental crusader and blunt songwriter of “Let’s Impeach the President” (that would be No. 43, George W. Bush) plainly praising President Ronald Reagan for, among other attributes, fostering more pride in America. These views aren’t necessarily contradictory, though they may be jarring to some of the fans who think of Young solely as the writer of “Ohio.” But Young has rarely shied from expressing himself musically or politically, and has always been a man of multiple facets. (Van Dyke Parks, once part of the Warner/Reprise family with Young, told Record Collector recently that the idea “fostered in those lyrics [of Young’s “Let’s Roll”] that we should retaliate was just absolutely revolting to me. It raised my hackles, and I think it condemned Neil Young forever as a mongering toady of war.” Clearly Young is just as controversial today as he was when he recorded “Ohio” with Messrs. Crosby, Stills and Nash in 1970.)
And so Young’s cranky anger is evident on “Motor City,” a sarcastic jab at the 1980s foreign car culture which originated on the album Re-ac-tor. When he sings, “Too many Toyotas in this town!,” he’s preaching to the choir, and is greeted by loud cheers from the audience. He’s just as riveting, however, on the workingman’s protest song “Nothing is Perfect” (“But nothing is perfect in God’s perfect plan/Look in the shadow to see/He only gave us the good things so we’d understand/What life without them would be…There’s plenty of wheat on the prairies/Lots of coal in the mines/We got soldiers so strong they can bury their dead/And still not go back shooting blind.”), one of the five songs making their commercial debut on A Treasure. Another of those “new” tracks, “Grey Riders,” is the most rock-sounding cut, and features Young on scorching electric guitar.
What else will you find on A Treasure? Hit the jump to continue reading!
But the overall atmosphere is that of warmth, and palpable joy in playing this music. Young is relaxed on the delightful “Amber Jean,” a paean to his daughter. “It Might Have Been” is a laconic, loping cover of a Joe London classic, and the story-song “Bound for Glory” (from Old Ways) is catchy as well as captivating. You might be compelled to shout “Yee-haw!” to the rave-up “Back to the Country” or the honky-tonk of “Let Your Fingers Do the Walking.” Best of all is a stunning version of Buffalo Springfield’s “Flying on the Ground is Wrong.” The guitars wash over you, Spooner Oldham’s piano shimmers, and Young’s voice allows the beauty of his melody to shine through.
Rufus Thibodeaux’ distinctive fiddle is the instrument that first jumps out on the record, but the entire band positively smokes. The first Harvesters lineup consisted of Ben Keith (pedal steel/lap slide), Anthony Crawford (guitar/banjo), Thibodeaux (fiddle), Tim Drummond (bass), Spooner Oldham (piano), and Karl T. Himmel (drums). For the second lineup, Oldham and Drummond were out, and Hargus “Pig” Robbins (piano), Joe Allen (bass), Matraca Berg and Tracy Nelson (background vocals) were in. The final three tracks on A Treasure feature this altered line-up, but the sound and style are both consistent.
The deluxe CD/Blu-Ray package offers the opportunity to not only experience extra content (the multimedia component is essential to Young’s Archives concept) but to hear the tracks in 48/24 PCM Stereo. While the CD sound is generally good (in standard 44/16 CD resolution), the songs absolutely sparkle on the Blu-Ray. In addition to the illuminating 4-minute interview, there’s also video footage of many of the songs in variable quality, to be kind. The majority of the video footage was obtained via collectors, and it’s alternately grainy, washed-out and shaky (“Southern Pacific”) or merely acceptable (“Get Back to the Country”). The footage has been synced to the tracks as heard on the CD, but the two sources aren’t necessarily from the same show. An exception is “Amber Jean,” which is performed live on the Nashville Now television program. No footage could be located for certain songs, and others have video dropouts for certain sections. The album cover appears onscreen wherever film couldn’t be located. Bizarrely, some of the band members seen in the footage aren’t heard on the actual tracks; “Bound For Glory” and “Motor City” show Joe Allen on bass, but Tim Drummond is playing! There is no dedicated audio option.
Neil himself appears in intentionally grainy Super 8 footage to talk about the Blu-Ray and album in a 17-minute “Tech Notes and Credits” feature. He explains the discrepancies in the films, and apologizes that the audio sources made it impossible for the Blu-Ray to sound as good as it might. (It still sounds pretty darned good!) He genially reads the credits for the album, and if it’s not quite as charming as, say, Harry Nilsson singing the credits to the film Skidoo, Neil is rather avuncular!
Although early reports (reprinted at the conclusion of this review) confirmed where each track was recorded, no such information is actually present in the CD booklet or on the Blu-Ray. The only printed notes consist of a reproduction of Scott Bernarde’s September 17, 1985 review in the Sun-Sentinel of the Miami concert held two days earlier. (Part of Liz Smith’s column accompanies the review, and it’s amusing to read Smith’s tidbits like “There’ll be a sequel to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s mega-hit of recent seasons The Terminator” with Smith noting that “the idea is kind of funny, since [he] was a computerized robot.” (!)) Historical liner notes and recording information would be welcome, despite the “living liner notes” of Young’s presentation on the Blu-Ray.
It’s all too easy to get frustrated with Neil Young, given the delays of so many announced titles and the laconic pace of Archives projects. But as he freely admits in the interview filmed some 26 years ago, he’s always been “consistently erratic.” That hasn’t changed. Neither has his commitment to recording however and whenever the spirit moves him, as when he defied expectation touring with The International Harvesters. A Treasure lives up to its title, and is a refreshing reminder of the power of great music when it’s least expected.
Neil Young, A Treasure (Reprise, 2011)
- Amber Jean* (9/20/84) Nashville Now TV – Nashville, TN
- Are You Ready for the Country? (9/21/84) Riverbend Music Center – Cincinnati, OH
- It Might Have Been (9/25/84) Austin City Limits TV – Austin, Texas
- Bound for Glory (9/29/84) Gilleys’ Rodeo Arena – Pasadena, TX
- Let Your Fingers Do the Walking* (10/22/84) Universal Amphitheatre – Universal City, CA
- Flying on the Ground is Wrong (10/26/84) Greek Theater – Berkeley, CA
- Motor City (10/26/84) Greek Theater – Berkeley, CA
- Soul of a Woman* (10/26/84) Greek Theater – Berkeley, CA
- Get Back to the Country (10/26/84) Greek Theater – Berkeley, CA
- Southern Pacific (9/1/85) Minnesota State Fair – St. Paul, MN
- Nothing is Perfect* (9/1/85) Minnesota State Fair – St. Paul, MN
- Grey Riders* (9/10/85) Pier 84 – New York, NY
* Previously unreleased songs