When I heard that Neil Young was saddlin’ up The Horse and takin’ ‘em for another musical spin, I was thrilled. But when I heard that the album they were working on would consist of old folk standards like Wayfarin’ Stranger, Oh Susannah and She’ll Be Comin’ Around The Mountain, my heart sank. I wanted new music from these guys! I wanted a fitting successor to 1990’s Ragged Glory, their last great masterpiece!. Well, I shouldn’t have been so quick to judge, because it looks like I got exactly what I wanted.
Neil has made some of his best music with Crazy Horse, dating all the way back to 1969’s Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. It’s a combination that is magical, although their last collaboration, 2003’s Greendale was a bit iffy…probably due to the overriding storyline.
On Americana, Neil and the boys (Billy Talbot-bass, Ralph Molina-drums, Frank “Poncho” Sampedro-guitar) take a dozen classic American tunes and forge them into something that’s completely their own while still maintaining the integrity of the original songs.
Opening track Oh Susannah is a perfect example. As Neil notes in the comments he has written for each song, Oh Susannah was written by Stephen Foster in 1847, but like many folk songs, has been adapted and revised over the years. Young cites Tim Rose’s 1964 version as his primary inspiration. As the track begins, you can almost see Neil and the band strapping on their instruments and coaxing that classic Crazy Horse sound out of their long-dormant guitars. The band rattles to life and before too long the track swings like a Palomino’s tail. Neil’s vocal replaces the song’s traditional melody with one of his own, giving the tune new life. But it’s the guitars that really kick this track into shape…noisy, grungy and gloriously distorted. Five minutes after it ends, the band stops and Young can be heard to claim, “It’s funky!”.
Next, Clementine rumbles in like an oncoming thunderstorm. Again Neil gives the old tune a new melody and reinstates some of the darkness that originally infused this song about a drowning girl. Again, there’s plenty of electric guitar to charge up the track. Neil and the band can be heard congratulating themselves at the end. And well they should.
The 19th century murder ballad Tom Dula was a big hit for The Kingston Trio in 1958 as Tom Dooley, pretty much igniting the folk boom of the late 50s and early 60s. Here, Neil and the band restore its original title and jam on the tune for eight minutes, giving Neil plenty of opportunity to stretch out on “Old Black”. My only complaint is that the guitar solos are a bit low ion the mix, making air guitar difficult, but not impossible.
Next follows a downright sprightly version of Gallows Pole, a tune that has been covered by everyone from Leadbelly to Led Zeppelin. Neil turns in one of his best vocal performances here.
I was surprised to see Get A Job on the track list. The song is a doo-wop classic originally recorded by The Silhouettes in 1957. I wouldn’t have considered it a folk song, but evidently Neil does. Anticipating the question, he justifies its inclusion in his liner notes by writing, “Get A Job is included in Americana because it is a genuine folk song with all of the true characteristics”. He fails to mention what those characteristics are, so we’ll have to take his word for it. Anyway, it’s a bit of goofy fun with plenty of “sha-na-nas” and “dip dip dips” provided by the band.
Neil continues to mine the 1950’s with a version of Billy Grammer’s 1958 hit Gotta Travel On. Young adds some new lyrics of his own and a wicked guitar solo to boot. After 6 minutes and 40 seconds of this, the band stops for a good laugh.
The version of High Flyin’ Bird recorded here is based on an arrangement Neil worked up with his high school band, The Squires, back in 1964. It rocks.
Jesus’ Chariot is She’ll Be Comin” Round The Mountain with a new melody. Neil and The Horse turn it into a blazing rocker with lots of intensity.
The volume level drops down with This Land Is Your Land. This is, of course, the Woody Guthrie tune. Neil and the band give the song a loping beat and he includes some less familiar lyrics, but doesn’t mess with the familiar melody. Stephen Stills and wife Pegi Young are on hand to sing along during the chorus.
Wayfaring Stranger is given a hushed, reflective reading and the electric guitars are set aside for an acoustic. “Dark clouds gather round me”, Neil intones. If it were me, I would have closed out the album with this one.
But its Neil’s record and he gives it one last blast with God Save The Queen. No, not that song, but the one The Queen likes. It’s a stomping version with Molina pounding the drums like his life depends on it. The song eventually morphs into the American lyrics of My Country Tis Of Thee, complete with a children’s choir chiming in. I could have done without the flag waving finale, but it’s a small price to pay.
Something special happens when Neil Young gets together with Crazy Horse. It’s a sound that no one else can make, and I’m sure glad to hear it here. Long live Neil Young & Crazy Horse!
Click here to listen to Clementine from Americana: