Produced by the artist and Ben Keith and utilizing a top-flight assemblage of supporting musicians including drummers Jim Keltner and Oscar Butterworth, bassist Donald 'Duck' Dunn and keyboardist Spooner Oldham (as well as Keith, himself, on pedal steel guitar and dobro), Silver & Gold went through three distinct incarnations over its nearly three-year gestation period.
The point of origin for the album's ten tracks can be traced to mid-1997 when Young returned from headlining the H.O.R.D.E. tour with the evolving notion of recording his first-ever totally solo album. While, over the course of his four-decade career, there have been abundant examples of his solo artistry - "Heart Of Gold" springs most readily to mind - the concept of a full tunestack of vocal and acoustic guitar originals had yet to be realized.
"While I was on tour," remarks the artist, "I had written a couple of new songs, including 'Silver And Gold' and 'Without Rings,' and I wanted to record them right away while my voice was still in shape from all the performing I'd done. I was also developing the idea of doing an album called Acoustica, which obviously was going to be all-acoustic, but using cheap little instruments, things you could buy at a world music store for $19.95, and then miking them really loud."
Setting to work in the fall of that year in the state-of-the-art studio built on his Northern California ranch, Young recorded his new material in a musical setting that he describes as "kind of out of tune and funky sounding, but with something going for it. But ultimately it wasn't where I wanted to go and I started rethinking the project."
By early 1998, Young had taken yet another sharp creative turn, this time veering completely off the solo path and recruiting the above-mentioned musicians for a full-fledged ensemble effort. So successful was this new approach that the artist went on to pen two fresh tracks, "Buffalo Springfield Again" and "The Great Divide," for inclusion on the work-in-progress. "Playing with these guys was fun," Young asserts. "We ended up doing a pretty straight-ahead record, but the songs were mostly more personal and inward-looking, so having a sensitive group of musicians to work with was really the right way to go. These guys are very sympathetic to the writer's point of view. They really know how to listen to a song."
But the work-in-progress took an additional detour when, in the mist of Silver & Gold - Version 3.0 - Young, working simultaneously with his former bandmate Stephen Stills on tracks for a long-awaited Buffalo Springfield box set, first began entertaining the possibility of joining a revitalized Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
"In the process of listening to all those old tunes," recounts Young, "we realized that there was still more that we could have done together. Stephen was working on a new Crosby, Stills & Nash album, so he played a song he'd written for them, and it really clicked with me. I volunteered to come down to L.A. to play on it and, once I got there and was back in the studio with those guys, they sounded so good and it was so great to see them all again, that I just hung in there."
The result was Looking Forward, the first CSN&Y release in over a decade and an album that would eventually contain four songs originally intended for Silver & Gold. In his enthusiasm for the CSN&Y reunion, Young offered his partners their choice of any of the material he had been assembling for his own album: the Young compositions "Looking Forward," "Slowpoke," "Out Of Control" and "Queen Of Them All" were duly transferred to Looking Forward, with the original instrumental tracks augmented by new vocals from the quartet.
"Some people questioned the wisdom of letting those songs go," admits Neil. "But I felt at the time that my album may have been suffering under its own weight and that by taking them out I could free up the whole thing. I listened again and, with the new running order, it seemed like an entirely different album to me, raised to a whole new level."
But the creative tweaking didn't stop there. Still intrigued by the idea of a wholly solo venture, Young embarked on a selected string of dates accompanied only by himself. Two dates at Bass Hall in Austin, Texas in May of last year provided a chance for him to perform much of the Silver & Gold material (along with such classics as "Long May You Run" and "Harvest") in their originally intended form, albeit without the tiny instrumental accompaniment. Those landmark Austin appearances have now formed the basis of a special Silver & Gold DVD, released in conjunction with the album of the same name, but with a somewhat expanded repertoire.
"I did almost every song I know at those shows," Young enthuses, "I was really having a good time. The place was sounding good and I felt really comfortable even with the cameras there. It was one of those rare occasions when it seemed like I couldn't do anything wrong. We definitely filmed the best show of the tour."
This said, fans of Neil Young are left with audio and visual documents of a remarkable creative process, the permutations of which are as impressive as its final outcome. Silver & Gold, the album, features ten Neil Young originals, eight of which were newly written for the project, as well as versions of the title track and "Razor Love," both of which date from 1982 and have often been performed live. Seven other selections feature the potent instrumental lineup Young gathered for the purpose, while the solo acoustic "Without Rings" dates from the first edition of Silver & Gold. The result, as might be expected, is quintessentially Neil Young - consummately crafted, brilliantly executed and fully realized. All of which proves the positive virtue of taking one's time - especially when one is the legendary Neil Young.