Graded on a Curve:
Neil Young + Stray Gators, Tuscaloosa

With Tuscaloosa, the Neil Young Archives continue to grow. Documenting a night on the road in 1973 with his band the Stray Gators post-Harvest and prior to the arrival of Time Fades Away, this latest installment is intrinsically tied to both of those celebrated records while presenting broadened and toughened aural portraiture of the artist. The results, incomplete and partially the byproduct of Young’s frustrations during this period of newfound success, cohere quite well and should make a nice addition to the shelves of devoted fans; more casual listeners might find its succinct range appealing. It’s out now on double vinyl (with an etched side four), compact disc, and high-res digital through Reprise.

Neil Young is a musician I respect quite a bit, with a large percentage of his output held in at least fairly high esteem, but somewhat predictably for a music nut, I remain largely indifferent to Harvest, the record that will likely endure as his highest-profile work. Every few years I go back and check out the whole thing again to see if my feelings have changed. Thus far, that hasn’t happened.

Unlike some folks, I don’t dislike Harvest as much as I’m just underwhelmed by its abundantly clear and undeniably effective commerciality. I bring up my lukewarm relationship because that album is a major component in Tuscaloosa’s whole. Of the 11 selections captured in the gymnasium of the University of Alabama (again, not the whole evening, as the soundboard recorder apparently wasn’t turned on at the beginning of the set and ran out of tape before the end; additionally, a few songs were simply omitted by Neil), five are from Harvest.

But partially due to the performance circumstance (delivering these songs in a building intended for playing basketball games), there’s more heft and edge to the Harvest tracks; in the order of their playing, “Out on the Weekend,” the title track, “Old Man,” and “Heart of Gold,” all unraveling as a lump after two pre-Harvest solo songs, “Here We Are in the Years” from his ’69 debut and a solo piano “After the Gold Rush,” and toward the end of the album, “Alabama.”

Heft and edge are adequate descriptors of what’s transpiring on these Harvest tracks, but a better term might be punch, as this was prior to drummer Kenny Buttrey leaving the tour. The muscle he brings to a batch of songs noted for their easygoing polish is one of Tuscaloosa’s, uh, strengths; obviously helping matters is how Young seems to favor this more powerful treatment.

It’s no secret that Neil was far from delighted over having to contend with Harvest’s success. He prefaces “Heart of Gold” with a tale of being approached to sell the song for use in a series of radio commercials. Even if the story’s made up (Young suggests it might be), there is truth in the fiction; Harvest is nothing if not accessible and having to put that sorta thing out there night after night will take its toll, especially on someone as notably crabby as Neil Young.

And so, the tour that produced Tuscaloosa is also the tour that shaped nearly all of the 1973 live album Time Fades Away; the title track is here, as is “Don’t Be Denied,” closing the album (if not the set) in raw loud fashion. Of course, Young was no fan of Time Fades Away either, which is fair, as it can be viewed as the documentation of a disintegrating band.

Part of Tuscaloosa’s appeal is getting to hear this group of individuals early, prior to Buttrey departing the tour (the rest of the Stray Gators were pianist Jack Nitzsche, bassist Tim Drummond, and pedal steel man Ben Keith); one could infer that Young’s pleasure after spending time with these recordings derives from how they come from the period before things turned ugly. Happily, this doesn’t equate to a laidback night on Alabama U’s home court, as “Time Fades Away” arrives after “Heart of Gold” with the severity of a jump cut.

It brings a rise in amplification and intensity that doesn’t subside. From there, surrounding the clearly personal “New Mama” are two statement songs, “Lookout Joe” (dedicated to “all the soldiers coming home from Vietnam”) and “Alabama” (one of two Neil tunes addressing the Southern USA’s troubles with racism; judging from the applause as the song opens, it seems many in the state appreciated his outside perspective).

Tuscaloosa’s incompleteness as a performance is obvious, but that’s not really a fault, as the record’s value lies in how it serves as a rough synopsis of Young’s career up to that point, and with a finger pointing ahead (along with Time Fades Away, both “New Mama” and “Lookout Joe” surfaced on ’75’s Tonight’s the Night). It begins with Neil alone with a song from his first solo record, jumps into an early masterpiece (that would be “After the Gold Rush,” which sounds quite good), and then takes the inevitable turn into his biggest success as the Stray Gators join in.

The Harvest stuff is more appealing to me here than on the studio album proper, but the best thing about Tuscaloosa is how Young seems to grow restless, serenading the assembled with (then) new songs, turning up the volume and at a few spots just rocking the fuck out. Bluntly, a loud rocking Neil Young is my favorite Neil Young of all.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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