LP Review: Neil Young & The Stray Gators’ Live ‘Tuscaloosa’ From the Archives

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Neil Young has once again opened his vaunted Archives and released a live album, Tuscaloosa, from a show in Alabama on February 5, 1973. Say what you want about Neil Young, but to go down to Alabama and sing the song “Alabama” with lyrics like, “Make friends down in Alabama/I’m from a new land/I come to you/And see all this ruin/What are you doing Alabama,” you have to admit he’s got some church-bell sized balls. I’m surprised he didn’t double down and play “Southern Man,” his other scathing indictment of the south. “Alabama” and “Southern Man” were the tracks that inspired southern rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd to write the response, “Sweet Home Alabama.” You have to remember in Alabama in 1973, other than the use of automobiles, it was still 1866. It’s a wonder Young made it out of the state alive.

Neil Young’s “archive game” is amongst the best. Only perhaps Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen have released more archival music than Neil Young has. I can only hope Prince and Tom Petty follow the path blazed by those guys. Of course Petty’s extended, double-album version of Wildflowers has been held up indefinitely by a lawsuit between his daughters and his second wife. Even Prince’s screwed up legal situation pales in comparison to that stuff going on, but I digress. If you haven’t, you should really check out neilyoungarchives.com. There is a subscription fee, if you’re really into Neil, but there is also some free content. You can pretty much find everything he’s done out there.

The 1973 tour was in support of Neil’s biggest album yet, his commercial breakthrough, Harvest. The hit from that album “Heart of Gold,” made Neil Young the most improbable of superstars. It’s pretty clear how uncomfortable he was in that kind of bright spotlight. When he introduces “Heart of Gold” on this album, he mentions that he turned down the offer to let it be used in a commercial. He says he and the band were going to re name the song, “Burger of Gold.” It draws a laugh from the crowd, but you can tell Neil is bothered.

The Harvest tour was fraught with problems. During rehearsals for the tour Neil had to fire his old friend, guitarist Danny Whitten (the leader of Crazy Horse) because he was so messed up on drugs and booze. The night after he was fired, Whitten was found dead of mixing booze and valium (aka diazapem). Neil felt a crushing amount of guilt. To make matters worse, his backing band, the Stray Gators – Kenny Buttrey on drums, Tim Drummond on bass, Ben Keith on pedal steel and slide guitar, and Jack Nitzsche on piano – were all session players instead of musicians Neil knew (well, he knew Nitzsche). Buttrey demanded the then-unheard of sum of $100,000 to play on the tour, to make up for lost studio session money and the rest of the band soon stuck their hand out. Neil said yes to the demand but it pissed him off royally. Anger on top of guilt made for an explosive combination. All of that added to his discomfort with being a superstar made for a less than ideal atmosphere. Then someone turned  him onto tequila, which he drank copiously on the tour. They knew which drug to legalize when they ok’d tequila. When I drink tequila, and I never drink tequila, I’m either going to fight you or try to fuck you and many times, both at the same time. Stick with bourbon, it’s safer.

The legend goes that the crowds who showed up to see Neil on the Harvest tour, expecting an evening of acoustic strumming and hits were surprised and horrified by the raucous and loud playing of the Stray Gators. Neil didn’t make it any easier for them by choosing to play a bunch of new, unheard-of-at-that-time songs as he had decided to record this whole train wreck. It was his goal to cut his next album live on this tour and to take a stylistic left turn, to get out of the middle road where he’d found himself and head into “the ditch.” As I listened to Tuscaloosa, the first two-thirds is just what the crowd expected – acoustic tracks, played faithfully. It’s only that last bit where the Stray Gators turn it up to 11 and play a bunch of unheard, new tracks. I have to imagine the crowds were at least initially happy with their evening but then it took an odd turn.

The shows on that tour usually started off with Neil doing an acoustic set, which he’s often done since. He comes out with an acoustic guitar and plays “Here We Are In the Years” from his first album. Then he sits down at the piano and plays “After The Gold Rush.” I have to think, at roughly 45 minutes long, this album is a truncated version of the concert. I’ve read he left a couple of songs from this concert off the record, just because he’s Neil Young, and the rest of the show wasn’t even taped. Neil is nothing if not mercurial.

Overall I’d tell you I really like this record. If you compare it to his last archival live release, Tonights The Night Live, (Review: Neil Young’s ‘Roxy: Tonight’s The Night Live’) they are vastly different. There is a dark mood that hangs over this concert album. The tensions with the band are palpable, if just under the surface. It’s clear on Tonights The Night Live, where he’s backed by his pals in Crazy Horse, he’s happier and having a lot more fun. The staggering thing is that album was recorded only 7 months after this album in TuscaloosaOne might describe this album as a tad brooding.

The middle of this record, after Neil plays his brief 2-song solo set, is really brilliant. The Stray Gators come out and play one of my all time favorite Neil Young deep tracks, “Out On The Weekend” and it’s just stellar. I’d never heard it played live before and they nail it. Ben Keith on pedal steel really shines on this part of the set. During the lead into the song “Harvest,” Neil introduces the band with all the warmth of a “Dear John” letter. “Harvest,” “Old Man,” and the big hit “Heart of Gold” are all played well and the crowd seems to really enjoy that part of the set.

And then, like someone flipping a light switch the band blasts into “Time Fades Away.” That songs first lyrics are amongst my favorite Neil Young lyrics, “Fourteen junkies, too weak to work…” The guitar solo from Neil during “Time Fades Away” is monumental. I have to wonder why he didn’t use this version on the album of the same name. The Gators continue jamming on a host of newly written stuff that probably did baffle the crowd, but still sound great here. It was an awesome night in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. “Look Out Joe” which Neil dedicates to returning Vietnam vets, “New Mama,” and the final track, “Don’t Be Denied” would all end up coming out later on either Time Fades Away or Tonights The Night. The versions here are great if not a tad shambolic. I like my rock and roll messy and Neil and the Stray Gators certainly deliver. The only track that the crowd would have known during this electric part of the set is “Alabama,” which again, what balls Neil had to play that song deep, deep into that southern state.

I do love that Neil introduces “Don’t Be Denied,” one of his most autobiographical, vulnerable songs as being about “an aspiring folk singer…” By this point in his career, Neil was a little past aspiring. This concert album is an interesting look at a pivotal and fascinating part of Neil Young’s career. Eventually tensions between Neil and the Stray Gators would lead him to fire Buttrey and bring in Johnny Barbata to play drums. He also brought in Graham Nash and David Crosby to do backing vocals… he must have needed some friendly faces. That line up is the one that ended up on the follow-up album, (the first of the legendary “Ditch Trilogy”), Time Fades Away (Neil Young: The Elusive 1973 “Time Fades Away” LP).

Check this album out and be sure to check out the Neil Young Archives. Fair warning: you can get lost in there…

Cheers!

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