Truth be told, Blitzen Trapper’s never been the most orthodox outfit. While ostensibly identified as Americana, their penchant for experimentation has made them difficult to definitively categorize, with the result that each of their six albums has held some sort of surprise in terms of content. That’s a good thing of course, but it’s also presented a challenge when it comes to confining them into a comfortable little niche. Fans and followers relish that lack of predictability of course, but for those unaware, they can be a bit daunting.
To a certain extent, the band’s desire to retrace Neil Young’s fourth and arguably most famous album, Harvest provides some practical purpose; that is, to reestablish their Americana allegiance. Covering famous albums is nothing new of course; Flaming Lips famously took on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon while Cheap Trick did the same with Sgt. Pepper. Indeed, there’s nothing wrong with an appreciation of the past, and while it’s a foregone conclusion that it’s hard to improve on past triumphs, it’s kind of fun to hear them try. Besides, gems of that magnitude are always ripe for reinterpretation, lest a new generation fail to grasp their importance.
Harvest represented not only a career triumph for Young — having spawned a number one single in “Heart of Gold”, one of the biggest hits of his career, and “Old Man” a mid chart single of impressive stature – but it also helped define the country rock, singer-songwriter movement of the early ‘70s. It became the best-selling album of 1972, even though it was initially greeted with less than favorable reviews. Critic John Mendelsohn called it a retread of Young’s earlier, superior efforts in Rolling Stone, labelling it “a discomfortingly unmistakable resemblance of nearly every song on this album to an earlier Young composition — it’s as if he just added a steel guitar and new words to After the Goldrush.”
Others were similarly dismissive. In retrospect however, the album’s stature has elevated considerably, and it’s now widely recognized as one of the greatest albums of all time. Young himself was said to be caught off guard by the album’s chart success. He later wrote that that the record “put me in the middle of the road. Traveling there soon became a bore so I headed for the ditch. A rougher ride but I saw more interesting people there.”
That ethos likely appealed to Blitzen Trapper, having positioned themselves as the rough hewn renegades Young subsequently aspired to be. Originally a Record Store Day release, their live take on the album comes across as a tributes of sorts, a nod to Young as the forerunner of all that’s unpredictable and spontaneous when it comes to making music – i.e. the ability to defy expectations and his leave the public gasping with anticipation. That’s likely one reason they don’t play with the template. The arrangements remain true to the originals, sans the orchestration and cameos (Stephen Stills, James Taylor, Linda Rondstadt et. al.) that helped accentuate the original recording. Given that formula, nothing can or does go astray. Live Harvest gives a classic album new life indeed.