Give me until the end of this piece, boys and girls, and I’ll try to come up with a suitable phrase to describe the music you’ll hear on Neil Young’s latest archival release, A Treasure. The easy way out has been for the press to refer to the 12-cut live disc (culled from 1984/85 performances) as a “country album” – but that really sells it short.
For sure, Young and the International Harvesters (the late Ben Keith on pedal and lap steel; Anthony Crawford on guitar and banjo; fiddler Rufus Thibodeaux; drummer Karl Kimmel; piano work split between Spooner Oldham and Hargus “Pig” Robbins; and bass duties covered by either Tim Drummond or Joe Allen) could stomp the boards off the front porch and fill a beer glass full of tears when they wanted to. Consider a couple of the five previously-unreleased songs found on A Treasure : it’s easy to imagine Tammy Wynette and George Jones standing on the Grand Ol’ Opry stage back in the day, holding hands and belting out “Let Your Fingers Do The Walking” (well … except for lines such as “I used to be so happy when you gave good phone”). And “Nothing Is Perfect” would be one of those sweet/sad slow tunes on a honkytonk jukebox that could wear out the quarter slot and drain off some serious Pabst Blue Ribbon. “Nothing is perfect in God’s perfect plan/look in the shadows to see/He only gave us the good things so we’d understand/what life without them would be,” sings Young with a shake of the head. (Catch the textbook wail of Keith’s pedal steel when Young sings that his woman “really knows how to stand by her man.” It’s a teeny bit tongue-in-cheek, but will give your heart a twist at the same time.)
The fact of the matter is, ol’ Neil can’t help but be ol’ Neil, no matter what genre he’s visiting at the moment – and his International Harvesters period captured on A Treasure is no exception. “Motor City” has plenty of yee-haw, but the snap and bite and rolling-iron-pride of the lyrics would fit right onto last year’s Fork In The Road without batting an eye. If Young’s late 80’s blues project The Bluenotes had included a pedal steel and fiddle, it could easily be them raunching out “Soul Of A Woman”. The two numbers originally released on Young’s Old Ways album in 1985 – “Get Back To The Country” and “Bound For Glory” – sound like good old bouncy country tunes from a distance. But dig into the stories contained within – Young breaking clear of his early rock ‘n’ roll success and a young female hitchhiker finding love “out on the Trans-Canada highway” – and you’ll find those twists that are anything but traditional.
The best thing to do is simply sit back and enjoy the ride: “Are You Ready For The Country” is looser and swaggers far more than the original on Harvest. And “Amber Jean”, Young’s tribute to his daughter (“This one’s for you, honey,” he says just before the band launches into it), is chock full of sunshine and love.
You tell me: “Southern Pacific” may have the underpinnings of a classic ode to a train, but there’s a nastiness to the guitars, an ache to the fiddle, and a yank to Crawford’s banjo (the riff he tears into just past the 4-minute mark is more Middle-Eastern than rural America) that combine to turn the piece into something that wouldn’t have been totally out of place on 1995’s Mirror Ball crunchfest with Pearl Jam. Or put an ear to the album-closing “Grey Riders” and prepare yourself for the blasts of squall and wail that are as wild and fiery and crazed and beautiful as anything found on Young’s legendary Time Fades Away.
I know I promised a descriptive phrase for the sounds to be found on A Treasure. I toyed with “grungebilly” and jotted down “Cosmic Hank”. Neither really does these tunes justice, however. The music made by Neil Young and that once-in-a-lifetime lineup known as the International Harvesters was what it was. And it was theirs. And it was great.
God bless Ben Keith: it was he who – when he first put an ear to these recordings – referred to this music as “a treasure.”
Right on, Ben. You said it better than I ever could.