Neil Young changed guises at a furious pace in the early Eighties. In 1982, he was making vocoder-slathered New Wave; the following year, he staged a rockabilly revival. Then, in 1984, Young shifted gears toward classic country. Touring with the International Harvesters, an eight-piece group of Nashville pros, Young performed both countryfied versions of his classics and cuts from his 1985 album Old Ways.
He was once known as one of the leading voices in the Los Angeles folk scene, eventually evolving into the Godfather of Grunge, but the era in between these two periods has been described as the “Lost ’80s” for Neil Young. This compilation of live performances, which was culled from the middle of the Reagan era, proves those years maybe weren’t quite as bad as critics initially thought. With his backing band The International Harvesters, Young dabbles in bluegrass and roots music here (think heavy fiddle, slide guitar and banjo), which alienated many of his mainstream fans at the time.
Neil Young has redefined himself artistically so many times, it's easy to forget there was ever a point in his career when the music industry expected something specific from him. Played live by Young and International Harvesters, a group of Nashville pros like lap steel ace Ben Keith who toured with him in 84 and 85, A Treasure is a snapshot of an era when Young's then-label, Geffen, went to war with him for not representing himself in a commercially viable way. Judging by his sales during that decade, they probably had a solid argument.
Volume 9 of Neil Young's long-delayed, suddenly prodigious Archives series, A Treasure chronicles Neil’s 1984-1985 tour with the International Harvesters, a crackerjack assemblage of country pros featuring guitarist Ben Keith, pianist Hargus “Pig” Robbins, fiddler Rufus Thibodeaux, and Spooner Oldham. This is one of Young's famous left turns, as he abandoned the tightly wound electro of Trans and the hipster rockabilly of Everybody’s Rockin’ for a trip back to the country, cutting Old Ways then hitting the road with the International Harvesters. Old Ways was a little stilted but the same can’t be said of A Treasure: this is vivid and alive, pulsating with a palpable joy.
Neil Young spent the 1980s making more headlines than hits. He defended Ronald Reagan in interviews, skewered Pepsi and Budweiser in a video banned by MTV, and fought off lawsuits from his label, Geffen, over a string of stylistically divergent albums. One of these was Old Ways, a traditional-country throwback that wasn't too many cornfields removed from Young's star-making 1972 release, Harvest.
The live archive series Neil Young has been releasing over the past half-decade is surely a way to celebrate the best of Young’s long and impressive career. What’s most admirable about it, though, is how it also represents the artist himself, warts and all. After Live at Fillmore East 1970 and Live at Massey Hall 1971—two brilliant live documents showing Young’s best work with Crazy Horse and solo respectively—the archives have taken some turns.
Are you ready for the country? So sings Neil Young on the song of the same name, the second track of his new live release, A Treasure. But this should probably be the first track on the album, since it’s more than just a fast, raunchy, countrified blues number; it’s something like an aesthetic standpoint. Young asks us if we can handle this side of him.
As Neil Young continues to mine his archives, the live recordings from 1984-85 that make up A Treasure prove essential to the series. With support from Geffen Records waning, Young retaliated with a crack country outfit in the International Harvesters and dug his boots into the outlaw sound with conviction. "Are You Ready for the Country" cuts like the challenge it was intended to be, while "Bound for Glory" couples Young's warble with supple fiddle and slicing steel that rolls throughout.
You get the sense listening to A Treasure, the latest edition in The Neil Young Archives Performance Series, that you are standing outside the artist’s mountain top home eavesdropping on an important chapter of his life. If you listen closely, you can almost hear the yellowed pages crackle in a forgotten scrapbook, making you a silent witness to memories resurrected, feelings remembered, pain re-imagined, pet peeves aired. A Treasure was recorded over two fall tours in 1984 and 1985 with the International Harvesters (which include the late Ben Keith on steel and slide guitar, Spooner Oldham and Hargus “Pig” Robbins on piano, and Anthony Crawford on guitar and mandolin) during a professional and artistic upheaval when the musician was sued by his then-record company Geffen Records for $3.