Album Review: Neil Young & Stray Gators’ ‘Tuscaloosa’

If you were going to take just one of Young's gajillion live albums to a desert island, this would be a good pick, since the newly unearthed '73 show encompasses his loud, acoustic and country-rock sides.

Neil Young & Stray Gators, Tuscaloosa
Courtesy Reprise Records

If you didn’t know better, you might imagine that Neil Young was making a political statement by choosing now as the time to release “Tuscaloosa,” a live album recorded at the University of Alabama in 1973, which includes as one of its fiery highlights “Alabama,” a sort of sequel to “Southern Man” that helped further piss off Lynyrd Skynyrd back in the day. You do know better, of course, since this archival offering was announced months before the state in question became the flashpoint for another rights debate. But you have to offer some props for the chutzpah on a guy who could write a number that condemnatory and reconciliatory about the area’s recent civil rights history and then go sing it in the belly of the beast, finding out that there was at least an arena’s worth of Southern men and women who did need him around anyhow.

If you’ve been a fellow traveler of Young’s or Bob Dylan’s for any length of time, one of the pleasures of having lived into the 2010s is how dedicated both of rock’s great surviving crypto-loner-legends are to providing their fans with massive musical data dumps. On the same June 7 date that sees Dylan issuing a 14-CD set from his 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue tour, Young is offering the rather more affordable 53-minute “Tuscaloosa” — the modesty of which must be seen as relative, since this is a guy who did recently start up a subscription site for his entire archive, and who seems to issue a new live recording from his vault every 20 minutes these days. Having established that there’s no shortage of live Neil in the world, though, there’s something special about “Tuscaloosa.” It’s the singular concert set that comes closest to providing a one-stop sampler of his acoustic, electric and country-rocking-in-between sides — which is to say, the Young live album that might best serve you on a desert island, or on that spaceship evacuating humanity to the cosmos in “After the Gold Rush.” (In space, no one can hear you stream the complete Neil Young Archives, right?)

“Tuscaloosa” isn’t even a complete rendering of that Feb. 5, 1973, show; the soundboard recorder apparently wasn’t turned on at the beginning and end, and Neil left out a couple other numbers in the middle because, well, he’s Neil. But the 11 songs that are here feel like a full journey through the potpourri of his classic styles — two solo acoustic songs, followed by four gentle full-band ones in the style of the then recently released “Harvest,” capped by five fully electric ragers. You could argue that this can’t really be a quintessential Young live album if Crazy Horse isn’t the band backing him in all its ragged glory. But if you want the ensemble that can get at his pastoral side as well as capture at least some of Crazy Horse’s full pyro, you’re looking at the long-gone Stray Gators, who not only made 1972’s “Harvest” with him (the source of four songs here) but provided a core lineup on the heavier-hitting “Time Fades Away” and “Tonight’s the Night,” both of which were previewed with two songs apiece for the unsuspecting Tuscaloosa audience. The latter albums were part of what Young called his “ditch” period, which, in getting darker and louder, were intended to get him out of a rut he feared might creep in after having struck gold with “Old Man” and “Heart of Gold.” The Gators marked a critical nexus point between musical eras, when Young was at the peak of his melodic talents, with tastes of the grunge to come.

It’s especially great to hear him with Ben Keith as a guitar foil — even if the guitar is mostly countrified pedal steel, with enough slide guitar in “Lookout Joe” to suggest an Allman-esque Southern-rock twin-lead road not really taken.

The acoustic-leaning classics that appear in the early part of the record have been harvested enough that it’s easy to undervalue their reappearance here. There’s enough of a comfort food factor to seemingly easygoing songs like “Here We Are in the Years” and “Out on the Weekend” that you need the increased volume and borderline-pitchy edge Young puts into his singing to remind you of how uneasy the undercurrents were in his get-back-to-the-land material, hippies in dystopia being a recurring theme in his output from 1969 to 2019. But it’s the lesser-revived songs in the set’s rocking second half that make “Tuscaloosa” an easy buy. The returning-Vietnam-vet song “Lookout Joe” has just enough cheer in its soloing to make the “old times were good times” refrain sound like a pick-me-up, not a bummer. “Time Fades Away” is one of the faster rave-ups in Young’s catalog, and “New Mama,” a song he wrote for Carrie Snodgress after the birth of their son, provides an actual ray of aggressive sunshine. That all these live cuts outshine their studio counterparts is a bonus.

But you come to Neil Young first and foremost for his noisily elegiac songs — don’t you? — and the album-closing “Don’t Be Denied” is an important reclamation of one of his most overlooked tunes. Norah Jones has made it her job in recent years to revive this one, rewriting the lyrics to make it about her own childhood and estranged father, versus Young’s absentee dad. But to hear Young sing it here, as he too rarely has since 1973, you realize it’s one of his core autobiographical songs, tracing the sublimation of early family traumas into art, and how that bittersweetly becomes the stuff of commerce — and it also has one of the most beautiful guitar riffs he ever came up with. The reason it ends “Tuscaloosa” may be that it’s where the tape ran out. But really, it’s a grand enough statement of ambivalent purpose to end any Neil Young show. Great deep tracks, like their more famous singers, can’t be denied … so here’s to keeping the dump coming.

Neil Young & Stray Gators
Reprise Records