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Neil Young's 'Archive Vol. 1': For real, at last

April 23, 2009 |  6:42 pm

I’ve seen it, I’ve touched it, I’ve heard it — it’s real.

Neil Young’s archive project has been so long in the making, it’s not surprising that even though the elaborately packaged 10-disc set plus book plus oodles of extras was on display for an invited audience Wednesday night at the Sunset Marquis Hotel, there’s still considerable skepticism about it out there in the music world.

“There are a lot of people who are convinced it’s just never going to come out,” Young spokesman Bill Bentley said at the preview listening/viewing of “Neil Young Archives, Vol. 1 (1963-1972).” Even from an extremely limited first glance, it’s apparent this will be a musical and visual treasure trove of a journey through the past of one of rock’s most creative and mercurial talents.

It’s scheduled for a June 2 release, and even though project execs said it’s not out of the question that Young still could make some changes before that date, the production wheels are in motion on what looks like one of the most ambitious career-retrospective packages ever.

It will be offered in three disc formats, on CD (for $99), DVD ($199) and Blu-Ray ($299). The Blu-Ray version was demonstrated in West Hollywood because it’s the fully interactive version that Young had in mind all along.

The Blu-Ray disc will work with any player, but the Sony PlayStation 3 used on Wednesday is “the player of choice,” longtime Young associates Larry Johnson and Will Mitchell told about three dozen onlookers.

Young’s been talking about putting together material from his personal archives since the late 1980s. Johnson said the long wait has primarily been because there wasn’t a technology format available to carry out Young's vision until the emergence of Blu-Ray discs.

“Our philosophy has always been quality whether you want it or not,” Johnson said. That means audiophile quality digital sound — but two-channel stereo, as virtually all these early recordings were originally intended, rather than remixing them into multichannel surround versions.

The big advantage of the Blu-Ray edition over the DVD or audio CD versions is that fans can listen to the music while exploring the myriad multimedia capabilities built into the discs. They contain vintage photos, short films, reproductions of handwritten song lyrics and various “hidden” bonuses that make it function in part like a video game. The PS3, connected to the Internet, will also let users download  additional content immediately and continue to add new material as Young and his pals make it available.

Mitchell, using the PS3’s game controller, hop-scotched across several discs, demonstrating the virtual file cabinet function where Young fans can pull up file folders that include reams of material about his songs, albums, concerts, films and other ventures over the years.

They estimated the set includes 25 to 30 hours of music alone. And that’s just for the first decade of his recording career, touching on his early stint with the Squires and on into his breakthrough with Buffalo Springfield, and then the launch of his solo career and the first offerings from Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.

Despite his inseparable role in the ‘60s counterculture -- the “hippie dream,” as he once phrased it -- Young has long been acutely attuned to the twists and turns of emerging technologies.

The first time I ever encountered a rock performer using wireless microphones and electric guitars was in 1978, during Young's performance at the Boarding House in San Francisco, where he was trying out material that would surface full blown the following year with the landmark “Rust Never Sleeps” album and tour. And love it or hate it, his 1983 album “Trans” was a fully wired marriage of rock and techno music elements. I’m in the camp that loved that willfully idiosyncratic experiment.

This box set certainly ain’t cheap -- not for the deluxe version anyway -- but it appears that Young will once again be out front giving fans fascinating new ways to experience his artistry. Long may he run.

-- Randy Lewis

For the Record: An earlier version of this post referred to music from Neil Young's stint with the Mynah Birds being included in the set. It will not be.