Classic Neil Young With The Stray Gators From Alabama ’73 Resurfaces As ‘Tuscaloosa’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

A slightly more tuneful counterpart to Time Fades Away, Neil Young’s Tuscaloosa sounds markedly slightly less startling than that record, especially with hindsight on the infamous ‘Ditch Trilogy” of the Seventies that also included Tonight’s The Night and On The Beach. But this previously-unreleased, near an hour-long collection of eleven relatively short tracks, also fill in the blanks of the Canadian rock icon’s history in the ’70s as it correlates to last year’s Roxy-Tonight’s The Night Live as well as 2017’s Hitchhiker.

Captured on tape at the University of Alabama in February of 1973, Tuscaloosa features Young with a band he dubbed The Stray Gators, the core of the accompanying roster of musicians that had recorded, Harvest, the commercial pinnacle of Neil’s career to that point. Comprised of Tim Drummond (bass), Kenny Buttrey (drums), Jack Nitzsche (piano) and Ben Keith (steel guitar), this ensemble is as loose in its own way as the various Crazy Horse lineups and more recent tours with Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real: skeletal, deceptively rudimentary musicianship and arrangements on tunes like “New Mama” aid in the coalescence of the material.

Spanning Young’s discography, the song selection forms a rough but nonetheless vivid narrative of Neil’s life amid those turbulent times. “Here We Are In The Years,” off his self-titled 1969 debut album, functions as an introduction to what seems less like a cautionary tale than a crowd-pleasing offering including a classic in the form of the title song from 1970’s After The Goldrush. A clutch of tunes follow from the aforementioned mainstream peak, but the ramshackle air permeating “Old Man” and “Heart of Gold” is a far cry from the stolid studio counterparts.

“Harvest” also tells a different and even more melancholy story in this rough-hewn form and its yearning becomes palpable followed by “Time Fades Away” and “Lookout Joe.“ Consequently, while “Alabama” at first sounds deferential, it ultimately becomes an implicit challenge to the hometown audience, Young’s slightly-camouflaged confrontational attitude further softened by his good-natured between-song patter. But if that passage sounds more effective than the sloganeering of “Southern Man,” precisely because it’s more subtle, the closing of “Don’t Be Denied” is far more pointed: Neil’s clearly appealing to the better angels in the crowd.

The former Buffalo Springfielder enlisted his current audio team of John Hanlon to mix and Chris Bellman to master this co-production with recording engineer Elliot Mazer. As a result, the sonics are, in turn, booming (electric) and hushed (acoustic) befitting the guitar(s) and/or piano in use. In fact, the sound resonates in its own way as much as the period photos of Joel Bernstein in the package, especially his kinetic B&W stage shot on the cover. More formal and complete editions of Neil Young’s archives have  been as satisfying as Tuscaloosa —this one lacks two cuts from the original recording– but none carry its implicit social relevance: even an artist as supremely instinctual as Neil Young couldn’t foresee the topical pertinence of an album titled in reference to this Southern state in 2019.



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