Neil Young: Hitchhiker

There is an intimacy and rawness to these performances that is riveting and subtly powerful.

Neil Young
Hitchhiker
(Reprise)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

“Ready Briggs?”

We’ll presume the inaudible answer of Neil Young’s question to producer David Briggs on August 11, 1976 was in the affirmative. Young then unloaded ten tunes played solo acoustic to an audience of one. Who wouldn’t have wanted to be a fly on the wall for that?

Whether these recordings were meant to be an album that never materialized (until now), or well-recorded demos (more likely), it’s still revelatory to hear Young unspool these gems in the intimate confines of this studio session. While eight have appeared in different versions spooned out on releases ranging from 1976’s American Stars And Bars, Rust Never Sleeps from 1979 (three tracks), Decade (the Nixon diatribe “Campaigner”) and one even as late as 2010’s Le Noise, there is an intimacy and rawness to these performances that is riveting and subtly powerful. Two are officially previously unreleased.

Young was coming off a trilogy of exceptional work with On The Beach, Tonight’s The Night and Zuma (we’ll skip ’76’s Stills-Young band well-meaning misstep), so creatively he was near the top of his game. These unplugged, live-in-the-studio renderings of songs such as “Powderfinger,” “Pocahontas” and “Human Highway,” the latter making its debut on ’78’s Comes A Time before reappearing on 2016’s Earth, find Young wrapping his reedy yet decisive voice around compositions many would consider some of his finest.

The two unreleased selections are well worth hearing, even if they aren’t lost classics. On the percussive strum of “Hawaii,” Young slides into falsetto for the title word, yet it seems to be an unfinished story of a friend looking to him for assistance. With “Give Me Strength,” Young recounts a romance gone sour with hurt and pain, mirrored by his distinctive high lonesome harmonica. It, like the rest of these diamonds in the rough, is a real find for long time fans.

STREAM THE ALBUM VIA NPR