Review: Neil Young and the International Harvesters – A Treasure
by Nick DeRiso
Time to rethink Neil Young and the 1980s.
A Treasure, featuring live songs from a 1984-85 tour with a group of Nashville pros, is the sixth release in Young’s ongoing Archives Performance Series — and it shines a spotlight on an often overlooked period between 1979’s Rust Never Sleeps and Freedom a decade later. Young tinkered, and sometimes failed, throughout the decade. The throwback country-inflected album he’d constructed prior to these concerts, appropriately titled Old Ways, had just been rejected by his label.
Yet this tour document, culled from a series of hootenanny-style send ups, makes its own case for the era.
It wasn’t only that Young returned to the downhome vibe of early 1970s triumphs like After the Gold Rush and Harvest, finding perhaps the most suitable home ever for his now-familiar tune ”Are You Ready for the Country?” It’s how Young melded these age-old folkways with rockabilly, with blues, even with Crazy Horse-style guitar fuzz.
The headlines were generated by the inclusion of Rufus Thibodeaux on violin and Ben Keith on pedal steel, both gone too soon. But the International Harvesters also included Spooner Oldham, an architect of the Muscle Shoals and Memphis sounds — as well as multi-instrumentalist Anthony Crawford, Hargus “Pig” Robbins on keyboards, Tim Drummond on bass and Karl Kimmel on drums, among others. As much as some want to call this a country album, what with the pedal steel and the fiddle and all, the truth is A Treasure boasts an interesting complexity just below the surface.
Sure, there’s the old-time waltz of “It Might Have Been,” but, hell, “Soul of a Woman” sounds more like a scroungy bar-band at some Delta flophouse than it does Grand Ole Opry fare. For every lilting “Amber Jean,” one of five previously unreleased songs here, there are these flinty moments like the one where Thibodeaux brilliantly saws his way through “Grey Riders,” an outtake from Old Ways that rumbles with a freight-train menace toward this scaldingly angular guitar solo. Young also finds new depth in the familiar, revealing the backwoods underpinnings of “Flying on the Ground is Wrong,” from Buffalo Springfield‘s self-titled debut; uncovering a honky-tonk melancholy inside “Motor City” and tapping into a looming sense of a nation adrift from its own traditions on “Southern Pacific” — both from 1981’s Re-ac-tor.
It’s not a perfect set of songs. Sometimes, the loose-knit band threatens to rattle itself into anarchy. But perhaps that’s just right for such an imperfect time in Neil Young’s career. A Treasure reminds you, one and maybe for all, not to dismiss anything about this stubburnly interesting rock ‘n’ roll character — even experiments that once looked like a misstep.
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