The artist whose music grows younger every day
It’s a musical image that plays with your mind. A teenage Neil Young playing matinee shows in his hometown of Winnipeg, slap in the middle of Canada, in a band called The Squires which did supports for touring acts.
One of those bands Young and his friends supported was called the Thorns from New York - featuring forgotten folk star Time Rose - who did an interesting take on the old Stephen Foster minstrel tune Oh, Susannnah. Young liked it, copied the arrangement and showed it to his band. They added bass and drums and it slipped into their repertoire and found some other traditional tunes and the odd bit of musical history.
Some of these songs have turned up on Young’s 34th studio album, Americana, released to the usual mixed reviews followers of the Canadian’s idiosyncratic career have come to expect.
With songs like that Stephen Foster standard and other trad tunes such as Clementine, Gallows Pole and Woody Guthrie’s This Land Is Your Land, you might expect Young would swing into his folkie roots, perhaps reprising some sounds from Harvest, After The Goldrush or Comes A Time.
As it happened, he didn’t. He was revisiting those times with the Squires in 1964 while working on his new book, a kind of memoir called Waging Heavy Peace which is being released in October. He also caught up with the members of Crazy Horse, the band he put together in 1969 for the record Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, because he was also writing about them in the book. They played some tunes and he introduced them to those old songs he’d played in Winnipeg.
The result is one of the best back bar rock records in a good while.
This record redefines folk music by anchoring it in the eclectic guitar sounds of Young and his offsider Frank Pancho Sampedro and the cluster bomb force of the most focused rhythm section in the world, Ralph Molina and Billy Talbot. From the start of Oh, Susannah you know it’s Crazy Horse, the fuzzy guitar followed by Molina checking all his drums are there before sinking into that trademark beat that David Crosby once derided as “boom, boom, thack! boom, boom, thack!’’ A minute in and there’s a funky groove going on given a lyrical wry smile when Young sings the chorus line “Coz I come from Alabama with my B-A-N-J-O on my knee’’ spelling out the instrument that carried Foster’s original melody.
Clementine sounds like Sixth Street in Austin Texas at 11pm during SXSW, all noise and the unlikeliest of vocals. If I was in a tank rolling across the hills around Kandahar I’d want this song in my headphones. Molina rumbles his tom toms like an advancing American Indian army at the Battle of Little Bighorn.
The record carries on in this fashion through the death dirges of Tom Dula (a reworking of the North Carolina murder ballad Tom Dooley which was rebirthed by the great Alan Lomax) and Gallows Pole (a song that has its own chapter in 20th century music from Leadbelly through Judy Collins and Bob Dylan to Led Zeppelin) before veering off into the 1950s with the doo wop classic Get A Job where Young sounds like Jonathan Richman fronting a drunk Modern Lovers line up. It’s as funny as it is great.
Travel On, High Flying Bird and Jesus Chariot (better known as She’ll Be Comin’ Round The Mountain) make up a fine middle - with the odd hint of Townes Van Zandt (I said this was a great and eclectic record) - before we find ourselves on Woody Guthrie’s back porch. Forget Bruce Springsteen’s all too respectful homage to the great man, this is the journeyman meets the grinning Young with verses played almost straight but surrounded by genuine guitar madness.
The one beautifully faithful folk tune is Wayfarin’ Stranger, the old spiritual made popular by Burl Ives and the New Christy Minstrels. It is a signature song which the band pulls off with a gracefulness that is alone worth the price of admission.
None of this prepares you for the final track - a version of God Save The Queen and we’re not talking Johnny Rotten who belongs in another chapter of Waging Heavy Peace. Molina has a military drummer-boy roll through this and Young and Sampedro give the guitars as much Hendrix as they can muster with an almost angelic youth choir in the background taking us through the chorus. The Irish won’t like it - my mate Peter Logue, a squeeze box fiend from Narrabundah, dares Young to play it in Derry - but it has an interesting place in the collection, although the justification that it remembers pre-War of Independence times stretches things a bit.
As I mentioned, Dave Crosby used to mock Crazy Horse, once saying they should have been killed at birth because they couldn’t play music. He recounts that he asked Young why he played with them and the singer replied that they were soulful. “Man, so is my dog, but I don’t give him a drum kit,” replied Crosby.
It’s a great story but sells Crazy Horse short. Sure, they aren’t Wilco or the Band but they are soulful in a smoky bar way. After 43 years I still love them and will never forget when they returned to the stage in Sydney the last time they toured with Young and played Cinnamon Girl. It was die and go to heaven stuff. This is a great record because of Crazy Horse, even though they only contribute to its madcap oddness.
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