Neil Young and the International Harvesters, A Treasure (Reprise): Over the past few years, Young has been digging into his catalog with a series of retrospective releases, reviving the Buffalo Springfield and generally spiffing up his legacy for future generations.
This latest compilation, which includes five previously unreleased tracks, was recorded live over a period of a year, from Sept. ’84 to Sept. ’85, while on tour with the International Harvesters, a band which included the late steel/slide virtuoso Ben Keith, fiddle player Rufus Thibodeaux and legends like Spooner Oldham and Hargus “Pig” Robbins on piano, Tim Drummond and Joe Allen on bass, Anthony Crawford on mandolins and guitars and Karl Himmel on drums. At the time, David Geffen famously sued the singer-songwriter for making a record that was an “uncharacteristic Neil Young album,” then refused to release it.
More than 25 years later, this country-flavored album sounds almost emblematic, especially during an era in which Nashville and classic rock have practically overlapped with acts like Keith Urban and Rascal Flatts. The approach is most clearly delineated in the opening (and previously unreleased) “Amber Jean,” with Young’s plaintive vocals the perfect accompaniment to the sawing background, Keith’s pedal steel, Thibodeaux’s strings and Oldham’s plunking piano. There’s as much country as rock in “Are You Ready for the Country?” from Young’s seminal 1972 Harvest album, recorded in Cincinnati’s Riverbend Music Center, and later re-recorded by Waylon Jennings. “It Might Have Been” is a more traditional weeper, with Thibodeaux’s sweet fiddle providing the heartbreak, not to mention a twinkle in the eye. “Bound for Glory,” not the Woody Guthrie song, but a track Young recorded with Waylon from Neil’s 1985 Old Ways album, whose original 1983 version was what started the feud with Geffen in the first place when the label chief demanded a more “rock” album.
The unreleased “Let Your Fingers Do the Walking” from the Universal Amphitheatre in L.A., is a sing-song country number again enlivened by the interplay between the square dance fiddle and plunking, honky-tonk piano. His version of Buffalo Springfield’s “Flying on the Ground is Wrong” is enough to make one thirst for this weekend’s reunion, and proof positive how very influential that band was as pioneers of the country-rock hybrid. “Motor City” is a prescient song about the proliferation of Toyotas and the death of the classic American made automobile, with a crunch that definitely leans on the rock side, as does the unearthed “Soul of a Woman,” a rollicking rockabilly track with honking harp and swinging strings, recorded live at Berkeley’s Greek Theater.
A Flatt & Scruggs-style fiddle hoedown drives “Get Back to the Country,” also from Old Ways, while “Southern Pacific” is another of Young’s chugging songs about his beloved railroad trains, originally performed with Crazy Horse. By the time we get to the closing, newly released “Grey Riders,” from Pier 84 in New York City, it’s a full-on rocker with country inflections in the fiddle grace notes and tinkling piano, a slammer featuring plundering guitars, making it one of Young’s legendary archive gems.
If there was any doubt that Neil could’ve been a country star, A Treasure lays that to rest with a twang and a bang.