Neil Young / Neil Young & the Stray Gators

Tuscaloosa

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Neil Young's muse has led him to release some curious albums over the course of his five-decade career, but he has a more contentious relationship with 1973's Time Fades Away than any other title in his catalog. Time Fades Away was a live LP assembled from several shows on his early 1973 tour following the breakout success of Harvest, which he undertook shortly after the death of Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten. Young was still wrestling with his grief over Whitten's passing, and his relationship with his band of the time, the Stray Gators, was not especially good (in part due to the high salary drummer Kenny Buttrey demanded, which Young then had to pay the other musicians as well). Young's public statements about the tour and Time Fades Away have been consistently bitter, which is reflected in the dark, chaotic sound of the album. For decades, it was one of Young's few releases to fall out of print and remain that way, and it's still not available as a stand-alone CD. (It does appear in the Official Release Series, Discs 5-8 box set.)

However, the 2019 release of the archival live album Tuscaloosa puts this tour in a new light. It preserves a February 1973 date with the Stray Gators at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, and rather than a rumbling hot-rod ride down a bumpy road of bad karma, Tuscaloosa presents Neil and his band in a warmer mood, sometimes downbeat but far less confrontational, and the vibe here is generally positive. Some of this can be chalked up to the set list; Time Fades Away featured only previously unrecorded tunes the audience didn't know, while this show included five tunes from Harvest and one each from After the Gold Rush and Neil Young. The crowd seems happy to hear familiar sounds (even "Alabama," which one might imagine would rub some Crimson Tide fans the wrong way), and while the set takes a sharp left turn into rougher territory at the halfway point with "Time Fades Away," the performance is significantly more energetic than the previously released version, enlivened by the pedal steel whoops of Ben Keith, making it a bit more user friendly.

Tuscaloosa also includes early performances of two songs that would later surface on 1975's Tonight's the Night, and on this evening, Neil and his accompanists gave "Lookout Joe" a ragged but controlled feel that matched grief with power and made the most of both. It would be wrong to look at Tuscaloosa as the flip side of Time Fades Away, as in its own way, it's also an album that confronts grief and emotional struggle. The difference is, on Time Fades Away, those emotions were presented loud and clear. Tuscaloosa is warmer, more engaging, and captures Young and the Stray Gators on a great night (and boasts a cleaner recording and mix), but even in the cheeriest bits, there's a dark shadow in this music that's subtle but eloquent. Time Fades Away was the drunken wake and Tuscaloosa is the family's memorial service -- and they're both important parts of the story of Neil Young in 1973.

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