Intentional or not, Neil Young picked a rather poignant time to release a live album recorded in Alabama—and given his prickly history with the state (and with the South at large), Tuscaloosa feels like it’s arriving in the same way that so much of Shakey’s career has: just when we need it. Back in 1972, when he released the song “Alabama,” people were still getting used to Neil. They were still getting used to the fact that he wasn’t interested in continuing to be that twenty-one-year-old miming over an overdub of “Mr. Soul” with a smile on The Hollywood Palace. And they were still getting used to the fact that he was the type of Canadian who would have the audacity to call out the United States when it was acting horribly.
“Alabama” was a statement of purpose—a doubling down of intent, following “Southern Man,” that indicated to listeners that being a Neil fan was not going to be a smooth ride at times. These days, that’s more or less common knowledge, but it’s easy to understand how those showing up to his arena tour in 1973 might not have received the memo just yet (or rather, might not have listened past “Old Man” on side two of Harvest). Tuscaloosa, recorded on a February night particularly early on in this tour—less than three months after Danny Whitten OD’d the night he was summarily dismissed from band rehearsals for being too strung out—is a treasure-trove artifact of the beginning of Neil’s ride into the Ditch. Somewhat surprisingly, though, it’s also a rebuttal to the notion that the whole tour sounded like the big bummer that it was. At least at first.
In comparison to Time Fades Away, the live album of sorts culled from this same tour with The Stray Gators, Tuscaloosa is actually a pretty upbeat set. Perhaps that’s because it’s made up of mostly Harvest songs (Neil was notoriously difficult about playing the hits in this era, but clearly not that difficult on some nights), and you try and listen to “Out on the Weekend” and not feel like life is 100-percent swell. That said, this version of the Harvest opener does have something darker than the studio version lurking beneath—something black. Simply put, Neil sounds like he gives just a little bit less of a shit about hitting all the right notes than he did before. It’s a stunning performance.
Toward the end of this set, Neil, ever unafraid, plays “Alabama” for the University of Alabama crowd, who, to their credit, respond with courtesy and awareness, breaking out into applause just at the sound of the riff. But whatever reception they gave at the end of the show that night is pointedly left out—unlike basically every live album ever made, Tuscaloosa fades out before the applause comes in, leaving us instead with “Don’t Be Denied” playing into oblivion. It may be agonizing to Neil, but at least in terms of lore and value and repeated visits, this really is the tour that never ended. (His band members, who each reportedly received $100,000 for their time, are probably more OK with reliving this period than their bandleader.)
But no matter how cool it is to hear this album, and no matter how heartstopping it is to hear stuff like an electric version of “New Mama”—don’t miss the nuts drum part on that song from Kenny Buttrey, who would soon leave the tour early in frustration—it’s undeniable that Time Fades Away is still the vastly superior product. After all, it was compiled from various shows across the whole tour, instead of just from one night. Regardless, though, Tuscaloosa, with its alternate look at a quintessential moment in rock history, is a second drink that’s impossible to turn down. words / n rogers
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