Neil Young and Stray Gators - Tuscaloosa - Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

Neil Young and Stray Gators - Tuscaloosa

by Brian Thompson Rating:9 Release Date:2019-06-07
Neil Young and Stray Gators - Tuscaloosa
Neil Young and Stray Gators - Tuscaloosa

There’s something transcendental about Neil Young’s live releases that rarely translates to his work in the studio, propelling diehard fans to search the ends of the earth for concert bootlegs and lost basement tapes. And even the slightest alteration in the chain of events around the recording can change the magic completely. Take for example his latest live album, Tuscaloosa, which stems from the same 1973 tour that produced one of his most beloved concert releases, Time Fades Away, and yet, it feels wholly unique. Perhaps it was the youthful enthusiasm of the university setting, or famed session drummer Kenny Buttrey leading the rhythm section instead of Young’s go-to Johnny Barbata, or maybe it was simply the energy in the room on that specific night, but Tuscaloosa serves as the ideal bridge between creative chapters in Young’s career, as we witness a fertile period of transition displayed in real time.

Where Time Fades Away consisted entirely of previously unreleased material, on Tuscaloosa (Volume 04 in the Performance Series of Neil Young Archives), Young doesn’t shy away from the hits. Following the critical and commercial one-two punch of After the Gold Rush and Harvest (the top-selling album in the United States in 1972), he had quickly amassed a devoted following who came to the show on an Alabama February night to sing along with their favorite songs. And Young delivered, but the tunes were draped in an altered light. The dry harmonies and full band sound of established standards like "Old Man" and "Heart of Gold" are pumped full of his newfound raucous energy, pulling crowd interaction and expanding their reach beyond quite protest songs. The eclectic setlist finds Young clinging to his acoustic back catalog while also clearly gravitating toward the much more grungy and unhinged sound of On the Beach and Tonight's the Night.

That’s not to say that the concert was a balls-to-the-wall jam session. Taking the stage alone, Young starts off slow and simple, with tracks like tender, melancholy "Here We Are In the Years," strained, vulnerable "After the Gold Rush," and raw, stripped down "Out On the Weekend." The two minds of Neil Young begin to converge on a swaying, honky-tonk take on "Harvest," complete with subdued band introductions from a man who isn’t famous for his on-stage banter. Through this open-veined humility, Young is able to win over the crowd to the point where he is can later belt out the pointed, accusatory “Alabama” to an auditorium full of spirited Southerners and they love him all the more for it.  

But Tuscaloosa also quickly makes great use of its communal energy. When the players get into a groove, there’s no stopping them. The Stray Gators are arguably Neil Young’s most criminally overlooked backing band, edgy and just the right amount of sloppy, with a direct line from their work together to the slacker college rock of the decades to follow. They truly come alive on playful and rowdy numbers like "Time Fades Away" and "Lookout Joe," reminiscent of Young’s friends and occasional collaborators The Band. It’s in these moments that we are able to watch his sound evolve before our very eyes, as on "New Mama" when the band erects the fuzzy, unrestrained wall of sound that would define much of Young’s mid-70s output. The Gators are nearly bursting apart at the seams as they lose themselves to the music, culminating in the eight-minute grinding rock showcase "Don't Be Denied."

For those who feared that Tuscaloosa would simply be a hurried rehash of Time Fades Away (although only two songs appear on both setlists), one only needs to compare the cover art, as the view from the crowd offers up an entirely different atmosphere than the view from the stage. Besides, even though this captures a performance on the same tour, Neil Young was still working out the kinks and deciding how he was going to utilize with his budding fame. Like many of his archival releases, Tuscaloosa is a true historical document, as we see Young on the cusp of what was soon to come, demonstrating the full range of his stylistic muses as he discovers the middle ground between making music for himself and working a hungry crowd. What’s more, it’s the sort of concert music enthusiasts dream of attending.

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Big fan of Times Fades Away so was wondering if this was extraneous or not. Sounds like, not! Of course this tour turned out to be a miserable experience for Young. You can hear the fatigue, frustration and anger in Time Fades. So will be...

Big fan of Times Fades Away so was wondering if this was extraneous or not. Sounds like, not! Of course this tour turned out to be a miserable experience for Young. You can hear the fatigue, frustration and anger in Time Fades. So will be interesting to hear Neil and the Gators before things turned quite so sour.

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