When David Geffen signed Neil Young in 1982 he bit off a little more than he could chew. Neil’s Geffen years demonstrate an artist changing with the breeze. You have the awful horribly misguided rockabilly of Everybody’s Rockin, the 80’s tainted Landing on Water, or the exceptional Trans – that sounds nothing like traditional Neil Young. By the time he got to Old Ways you’d think they would’ve breathed a sigh of relief. Nup, they ultimately sued him, and to be honest Old Ways was no Harvest.
Yet in 84-85 deep in legal disputes he headed on the road with the International Harvesters, a grab bag of legendary country music artists including Spooner Oldham, Karl Himmel, Joe Allen and of course Ben Keith. Most of these tunes would end up on Old Ways, yet there are six that have never been released before, which is of course why we’re so breathless about these archives releases.
There’s looseness to the playing here, it feels raw, fun, a contrast to the overly laboured Old Ways. So even the songs we already know feel lighter, freer than on album. It’s actually probably the most accomplished band that Neil has ever played with; all of them are Nashville alumni. The problem is that whilst the band makes most of the tunes sound great; there are few of those epic Neil Young classics here.
Southern Pacific from Re-ac-tor at eight odd minutes is like a train coming and sounds incredible with a banjo solo, whilst another run at Buffalo Springfield’s Flying on the Ground is Wrong with the country folk sounds more lush, somehow more poignant with pedal steel. The best song on this set is a new, Grey Riders, an almost six minute dirge of squalling guitars that somehow makes sense with fiddle and organ, particularly when you consider Neil’s pained wail while he throttles his guitar, suggesting more Crazy Horse than International Harvesters. It all sounds pretty great though, if you like your bluegrass, your honky tonk, and your Neil this is his 12 months escape from the hippies, from Geffen and probably from his former misguided 1980’s infused selves, playing state fairs, rodeo arenas and loving it.