Tuscaloosa offers yet another tantalizing glimpse into the vast Neil Young Archives, this time in the form of a live performance with impeccable sound and solid performances from Young and his crack band of studio players (Jack Nitzsche on piano, Tim Drummond on bass, Ben Keith on steel guitar and Kenny Buttrey on drums) calling themselves the Stray Gators. Recorded on February 5, 1973, at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa presents a remarkable live performance from Young along with the Stray Gators during what was arguably his most commercially successful period. Coming off the twin successes of After the Gold Rush and Harvest – both of which are well-represented here – Young and the Stray Gators retain the quiet, acoustic intimacy of both albums throughout the program’s 11 tracks.

As was typical of this time in Young’s recording career in terms of musical collegiality and simplicity, the show opens with a pair of tracks featuring Young alone with his guitar (“Here We Are in the Years”) and piano (“After the Goldrush”). Yet even when the Stray Gators join on “Out on the Weekend,” there remains a quiet intimacy that stands in sharp contrast to his work with Crazy Horse. Here is Young the folkie, content to sing his songs with minimal fuss and chatting nonchalantly with what proves to be an overwhelmingly appreciative audience. As they attempt to start “Harvest,” Young introduces the band following a brief aside letting those in attendance know that they were trying to establish the correct tempo and feel. It’s a rare moment of candor that helps make Tuscaloosa feel as though it were recorded in a small coffee shop, perhaps, to a small gathering of friends.

It’s this kind of relaxed looseness that makes Tuscaloosa such a welcome addition to the voluminous Young catalog, the songs (“hits”) from his biggest albums delivered in the years immediately following their release and while still fresh in both the public’s perception of Young and his own ever-expanding canon. Each song is afforded a biographical aside (“Most of it I’m making up and isn’t true,” he glibly states as the audience applauds his turning down of a commercial offer for “Heart of Gold”), adding to the congeniality of the performance. Notoriously temperamental, Young here sounds very much at ease in his surroundings and truly enjoying himself. It’s little wonder he chose this particular performance to serve as the latest in his series of unearthed Neil Young Archives releases.

There isn’t anything necessarily revelatory in the performances collected here, but their overwhelming quality makes Tuscaloosa nonetheless a welcome addition to Young’s catalog and a fine document of one of the most significant periods in his career. The juxtaposition of well-known songs (“Heart of Gold,” “Old Man,” “Harvest,” After the Gold Rush”) with then unreleased tracks like “Lookout Joe” (dedicated to “all the soldiers coming home from Viet Nam”) and “New Mama” from Tonight’s the Night – an album still two years away from being released despite having been recorded in ’73 – and “Time Fades Away” helps make Tuscaloosa serve as both a victory lap of sorts and transitional document.

These latter tracks in particular represent a tonal shift that would find Young’s work sliding into darker thematic territory. Indeed, Bruce Berry, Young’s longtime roadie whose death would serve as the genesis for and dark cloud surrounding Tonight’s the Night was still alive at the time of these recordings (he would die several months later on June 4th in Los Angeles). Still, the themes that album would explore were already present on “Lookout Joe” (“Remember Bill/ From up on the hill/ … put a hole in his arm”). Yet there’s still enough of the late-‘60s hippie idealism here to ensure Tuscaloosa is an essential link in the evolution of Young’s half-century-plus recording career. And for that, we can all be thankful that he has so graciously opened up his archives to let the wealth of aural riches be enjoyed by his fans both new and old.

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