Tuesday, June 14, 2011


The latest offering in the Neil Young Performance Series comes from 1984-85, the time of the International Harvesters, or Neil's Country Period. It was the first show of his I ever saw, in Fredericton's Aitken Centre, with The Judds as opening act. I remember it being a lot more rock than I would have expected from the country album he put out, Old Ways, and that's exactly what this live set shows. Despite the presence of a fiddle, banjo and pedal steel, Young really couldn't keep himself from straying into his other loves. The disc includes 12 cuts, five of them never released officially in any form before, including a couple of legendary unreleased favourites, Grey Riders and Amber Jean. As with the live shows at the time, this set proves the country period was a lot better in the concert hall than it was on the overly-cliched Old Ways disc. It was one of the discs record company Geffen originally refused to release, and ended up with a different track list and a lawsuit from the label against Young, for willfully making uncommercial music.

It sure seemed commercial that night at the Aitken Centre, and on TV shows such as Austin City Limits and Nashville Now. Crowds were generally pleased with the show, especially when it started with Harvest classic Are You Ready For The Country?, included here. My memory tells me there were other well-known tracks played that night, including Heart Of Gold, Needle & the Damage Done, and Helpless, but this disc concentrates on the surprises, quite rightly. For my ears, the best one is Flying On The Ground Is Wrong, the old Buffalo Springfield song, and in fact, the number that so impressed Stephen Stills that he wanted to play with Young. Neil seemed to take delight in finding obscurities which could make the country transition, including Reactor's Southern Pacific and Motor City. Plus, a few shows in, he was writing new songs and itching to play them, as opposed to the old Old Ways numbers, and that pulled him even further from the country trail. The unreleased Soul Of A Woman is a raunchy blues, and nothing but, despite Rufus Thibodeaux's attempts to fiddle with it.

It's a pity in some ways that we don't get a full Old Ways-era concert, but as usual, the reasons are complex and we're at the whim of Young. He states in technical notes you can find on the web that it's all about the audio here, and he found these excellent performances buried away, a cache of tapes pedal steel pal the late Ben Keith called "A Treasure". So audio is the top criteria for Young, and as usual he's leaning us towards blu-ray. For visual content, his archives bunch found some footage online, and synched up a few cuts to the live tapes, but they are not the same performances. In fact, Young points out the video they have even has the wrong bass player, from earlier shows. When they don't have any footage, they used the album cover on the blu-ray. But ya, it does sound great. And bless them for using the Nashville Now version of Amber Jean, which remains a great song and performance. You audiophiles can also bask in the sound of the 180-gram vinyl pressing, over two albums. Even if great sound isn't your bag, this is a very satisfying archive release from Young, from one of his most unheralded periods.

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