[12 June 2011]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
The live archive series Neil Young has been releasing over the past half-decade is surely a way to celebrate the best of Young’s long and impressive career. What’s most admirable about it, though, is how it also represents the artist himself, warts and all. After Live at Fillmore East 1970 and Live at Massey Hall 1971—two brilliant live documents showing Young’s best work with Crazy Horse and solo respectively—the archives have taken some turns. There was the early-solo-career 1968 set on Sugar Mountain: Live at Canterbury House, and then the perplexing but enjoyable Dreamin’ Man ‘92. That one gave us solo live versions of the songs that would become Harvest Moon. It wasn’t the most exciting set—the versions were fine but missed the album’s sweet layers—but it was a classic Young move. He released the sound he was into at the time, the part of his past he was exploring. We could follow along or not.
In this way, the archive series is just as stubborn and erratic as Neil Young’s studio output, which is what keeps it interesting, and A Treasure is the most intriguing release to date. It’s not the best—those first two installments are untouchable—but it represents a peculiar time in Young’s career and shows that, despite being in limbo he was still energized to perform, to keep pushing and reinventing himself, and to chase down whatever muse hit him in the moment.
The 12 songs here are culled from tours that took place in ‘84 and ‘85. The tours were not in support of any album in particular—though there’s stuff here that would end up on 1985’s Old Ways—and he wasn’t backed by his label. By ‘84, Young had recently released the infamous vocoder-vamp Trans and, then, he stuck Everybody’s Rockin’ right in Geffen’s eye. The album’s ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll revivalism was a response to Geffen’s request for a more rock-oriented album from Young, and the label hated the record so much they sued Young over it.
So, for these shows, Neil Young was out on his own and did what he wanted to do: he assembled a country band. The International Harvesters included some long-admired country players including Spooner Oldham and Pig Robbins on piano, Rufus Thibodeaux on violin, Ben Keith on lap steel and guitar, Anthony Crawford on mandolin and so on and so on. The players were many and highly skilled, and the set here shows Young at the head of a rollicking country romp. Opener “Amber Jean”—one of five unreleased songs in the set—kicks up barnyard dust with a tumble-down violin riff and lap steel glides over the ragged tune nicely.
Other tunes like the country waltz of “It Might Have Been”, “Let Your Fingers Do the Walking”, and “Get Back to the Country” ride the same old-time country vibe well. They prove precursors for 1985’s Old Ways but sound far more lively than that often overworked album. Here there are no heavy, languid strings, just fast picking and jangling backing vocals and, in the end, a loose feel to the songs that serves them well. They also mesh nicely with some of the more bluesy rock numbers here. Songs like “Southern Pacific” and “Motor City” are solid here, the guitars full and roiling, and serve as a vast improvement to versions from 1981’s Re-ac-tor, the album on which they appeared.
So Young seems to get it both ways on A Treasure. We see a rough-hewn country side, but he doesn’t neglect his ability to crunch out some rockers. The unreleased material here—particularly closer “Grey Riders” with its thundering solos—prove worthy editions to the Young canon, and are palatable enough for both long-time fans and anyone who might just stumble upon these tunes.
A Treasure shows us a curious side to Young as a performer, and confirms his unpredictable artistic vision, but its biggest feat is salvaging solid songs from subpar albums. Of course, the trouble with that is—while the songs are exponentially better here—they still don’t always represent the best of Young’s songwriting. While this may not sound like Old Ways, what it shares with that record is that this set has a solid overall sound, but the songs themselves don’t always distinguish themselves.
Young’s singing is brittle and sweet here, and the players vital, but if you weren’t told it was Neil Young you might mistake some moments for the musings of an anonymous bar band. While in some ways that speaks to the loose and joyful feel of these recordings—despite the trouble around him, Young sounds for all the world like a carefree singer —it undersells Young’s distinctive voice both as a singer and songwriter. Like many of his more divisive albums, A Treasure finds him digging into a musical itch he needs to scratch—here, the country and western tradition—and while it works better than those records, it still might be more of a compelling and curious piece to the Neil Young story than it is a great live document in its own right.