Review | Neil Young - Tuscaloosa
The latest release in Neil Young’s Archives Performance series is a bleak yet captivating look at a lonely boy out on the weekend as he grapples with fame and art.
It has now been 13 years since the first release in Neil Young’s Archives series. Since then, Young has teased his fans with announcements of tantalizing projects ranging from lost studio albums to carefully curated live sets. Fans often clamor and demand for the release of albums like Homegrown or the live album Alchemy, which Young has been promising for the better part of the last decade. However, the most rewarding sets in this series are often the ones we didn’t previously know of, such as the latest in his ongoing “Performance Series,” Tuscaloosa, a live album containing tracks from a previously undocumented show in Tuscaloosa, Alabama recorded early on in the now infamous “Time Fades Away” tour. Recordings from this tour made up the 1973 album Time Fades Away, but this release marks the first time that a show from this notoriously difficult tour has been made available to fans legally (albeit in highly edited form).
Young was not a happy man in 1973. His friend and rhythm guitarist in Crazy Horse, Danny Whitten, had died of a heroin overdose less than a day after Young had sent him home from rehearsals for this tour due to his smack induced incompetence. The success of his latest album Harvest had put him in a position of fame he was in no way prepared for, and he was struggling to transfer the album’s low-key sound into the world of a rock 'n’ roll stadium tour. His band was demanding more and more money, and his new electric guitar, a beautiful blonde Gibson Flying V sounded like shit. All of this plus his own personal problems added up to a perfect storm of frustration induced dark country rock. You can especially hear how tired he sounds on this, the 26th date of a 62 date tour, in the first two solo songs. It’s morbidly captivating to hear him lumber his way through “Here We Are In The Years,” the ecological chestnut from his debut. Never have solo recordings of Young sounded this lonely, and Neil Young is an absolute master at creating lonely music.
He is soon joined by his backing band, The Stray Gators for a sampling of some of Harvest’s more memorable acoustic lead tracks. This was the first tour on which these songs had been played following their release, and Young already sounds tired of playing them. Before heading into “Heart of Gold,” Young wryly comments that the song was originally “gonna be on all the AM radios, y’know, a little 60 second spot, me and the guys singin’ ‘Burger of Gold.’” The new commercial viability of his music was unappealing to Young, and would inspire him to take his songs in a new, darker direction in a period that would become known as The Ditch Trilogy, the string of albums that followed this tour. This new darker direction would also be evident in the songs debuted in the electric set.
Much in the same way Dylan came alive during the electric portions of his 1966 tour, Young’s energy returns as he launches into new tracks such as the punkish “Time Fades Away,” which chugs along at such a breakneck pace, it sounds as if drummer Ken Buttery is gonna implode. In addition to his effortless licks, pedal steel virtuoso Ben Keith lends his trademark wandering harmonies to songs like “New Mama” and the poignant “Alabama.” The camaraderie that comes with working with another singer seems to invigorate Young, who gives some great but brief blasts of electric guitar on the later tracks. The story goes that Young’s chosen guitar for this tour, the aforementioned Flying V, couldn’t hold a tune (according to his website, the recording of “The Loner” from this show had to be cut because it wasn’t in tune), but despite this and the fact that he didn’t have a rhythm guitarist for these shows, Young is able to give some typically passionate guitar performances on these tracks. The excitement of the band on these songs is infectious, and it’s really something special to hear these songs performed with such fervor, even in their infancy. The last song of the album is also one of Young’s most stark and personal, the devastating “Don’t Be Denied.” Taken here at a snail’s pace, Young sounds like the only living boy in Alabama that night as he belts out the bleak and commanding chorus time and time again. It may be one of the most haunting closers of Young’s career.
Tuscaloosa may take the cake as the most difficult album’s in Neil Young’s catalogue. Even Tonight’s The Night and On The Beach had moments of brightness, but here it feels as though there may not be a light at the end of the tunnel. However, just because it is difficult does not mean that it isn’t enjoyable. The acoustic Harvest songs are worth the price of admission alone, and the electric second half is some of the most fascinating non-Crazy Horse electric music Young has ever released. If the Neil Young Archives continue to give treasures such as this, his fans should be more than happy to go along for the ride.
Best song: “Time Fades Away”
Worst song: “After The Goldrush”