For a couple of years in the ‘80s, Neil had insisted that he would only be playing strict country music henceforth. He changed his mind of course, and hindsight has shown that his stance was more down to his defiant nature than anything else—basically, the more his label told him not to, the more hokey he got. This resulted in the Old Ways album, which gestated over two years into a bland listen that has clouded the popular perspective of where he was at.
The release of A Treasure, a collection of live recordings from that two-year period, should change all that. Only two songs from Old Ways appear here—thankfully, “Get Back To The Country” did not employ a jawbone onstage—giving us a chance to appreciate that Neil was up to a lot more than the album would suggest. The overall sound is closer to, say, side two of Hawks & Doves, using many of that album’s musicians.
What also makes it preferable is the handful of songs that were performed multiple times on the road—and on the Austin City Limits TV show—but didn’t make it to Old Ways. The very first track, “Amber Jean”, is a love song to his newborn daughter. “Let Your Fingers Do The Walking” is a journey into a Nashville pun, but luckily without the syrup it would have received in the studio. “Soul Of A Woman” had been tried out in his Trans and Shocking Pinks guises, and would also appear during the Bluenotes era; here it’s middling R&B. “Nothing Is Perfect” comes straight from the mid-‘80s Farm Aid mentality, but “Grey Riders” absolutely cooks.
A few older songs are given new coats of paint. “It Might Have Been” is an old standard performed as far back as 1970 with Crazy Horse (and included on Archives Vol. 1). There’s a stunning take on “Flying On The Ground Is Wrong”, which some reviewers have compared to Poco or the Flying Burrito Brothers. “Are You Ready For The Country?” doesn’t have any of the sloppy charm of the original. Proof that country was always in his blood is reinforced with “Motor City” and “Southern Pacific”, both originally heard on the acerbic Re-ac-tor album, and here transformed to good old-fashioned stompers.
A Treasure confirms—and this was the point—that Neil wasn’t necessarily lost during the ‘80s; he just put out some bad albums. As an official installment in the Archives Performance Series, it only has us wondering if the others will be just as illuminating. (A Blu-Ray edition of the album features highest-quality audio synched to whatever video footage was available; in some cases, the song might be the same but the players are different.)
Neil Young/International Harvesters A Treasure (2011)—3