Monday, May 30, 2016

Neil Young discovers Santa Cruz - 3/10/73 - Neil Young and the Stray Gators, Linda Ronstadt and her band. Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium

My apologies to the reader who asked for me to write about this show some time ago. GV, this one is for you.

The Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium is a fine place to hear music. Located a couple of blocks off of the town’s main drag, Pacific Avenue, it is a splendid old art deco edifice that can seat just over 2000 patrons. Paradoxically, it was not used for popular music concerts much, if at all, during the first 18 months I went to UCSC, and not for several years prior to that. I do remember seeing a sign for a Doobie Brothers dance concert maybe in late 1972, but I’m not sure how the promoters got around the ban on such events that had more-or-less held since May 28, 1966, when a Jefferson Airplane concert was held there, discussed at length in the wonderful Rock Prosopography 101 and linked here. Rock shows had previously been banned in the hall in 1956, when rioting ensued following a concert by Chuck Higgins and his Orchestra, best known for their single “Pachuko Hop.”

At any rate, it was big news in town when it was announced that the Civic would host Neil Young in March of 1973. As far as I can tell, this show was the start of Young’s long relationship with the beach town, where he famously relocated for several months in the summer of 1977 as a member of short lived supergroup the Ducks.  In the spring of 1973, Young was riding a crest of unparalleled popularity following the release a year earlier of his most commercial album, Harvest, which held the distinction of the best selling album of 1972. Ironically, he was not able to tour behind that album around the time of its release because of a back injury he sustained in 1971. Instead, he confined his live appearances to a few stealth appearances with his friends, including a marvelous Crosby Nash acoustic show that I attended on 10/17/71 at De Anza College’s Flint Center in Cupertono. At that show, Young joined his once and future bandmates for a few tunes including “Helpless” and “Ohio.”   

However, by the beginning of 1972, Young was fit enough to venture out on the road with a new band, the Stray Gators, for what was a hybrid acoustic/electric tour.  The travails of this tour have been famously documented in several books about Young – band personnel issues, Young’s continuing back issues, and just the length of the tour and size of most of the arenas made it a challenging few months for him.  However, his relatively unexpected stop in the Santa Cruz Civic, which was probably the smallest venue on the tour, seemed to have been a relative high point.

There was quite a line of students and townies queued up at the Civic when tickets went on sale, and they sold out quickly, but it seemed like everyone I knew who wanted to go got tickets. It was my first venture into the Civic, a tidy little auditorium that, like many of its larger cousins, has fixed raised seating ringing the floor, but folding chairs set out on the floor for concerts, allowing for flexible use of the floor for events such as the town’s popular Derby Girls, who hold their home games in the Civic. My friends and I positioned ourselves in the stands halfway back on stage right. 

The first surprise of the evening was an unbilled opening set by Linda Ronstadt and her current touring band. Up to that point, Ronstadt had had a moderately successful career as lead singer of the Stone Ponies and as a solo artist on Capital but, newly signed to David Geffen’s Asylum Records, she was about to be elevated to major stardom. Her brief opening sets on Young’s tour did much to raise her visibility, and I was certainly impressed with her and her crack country rock ensemble, which probably included Richard and Mike Bowden, but further details, including the set list, did not register at the time. I do recall that she did a ripping version of “Silver Threads and Golden Needles,” as well as what had up to that time been her biggest hit single “Long Long Time” from her Stone Pony days.

Neil came out in a good mood, opening with a brief solo acoustic set. Unfortunately, I did not keep a set list, and no audience tapes of the show have surfaced, but I know he did a “Sugar Mountain” and a few Harvest tunes, incliding “Heart of Gold” and “Old Man.” He then brought out his band, comprising pianist Jack Nitzsche, bassist Tim Drummond, drummer Johnny Barbata, and steel player Ben Keith, opening with a pumped up version of “The Loner.” Most of the remainder of the set consisted of new material, much darker and more electric than the gentle sounds he had cooked up on his previous album. In an avuncular mood, Young provided lengthy introductions to most of the material, pretty much all of which was released on Time Fades Away and Tonight’s the Night. At the time, it was a remarkable new body of work, not so easy to digest on first hearing, but one that grew in significance as time went on. Again, the exact order is unclear, but the band did a whole string of new songs, including “Time Fades Away,” “Lookout Joe,” “New Mama,” and Young’s powerful autobiographical tune, “Don’t Be Denied” in a row. Midway through the electric set, he introduced Crosby and Nash, who entered, both wielding electric guitars, to thunderous applause. They harmonized on a few tunes that were regular in the CSNY repertoire, “Alabama,” “Southern Man,” and “Cinnamon Girl” as well as another new piece, “Yonder Stands the Sinner,” largely maintaining the downbeat tone of the other new tunes. The set closed with a long, raucous version of Young’s “Last Dance,” which featured a seemingly endless coda with the three vocalists singing “Come on, turn out the lights,” over and over to grating instrumental accompaniment, the usually gentle strains of Keith’s pedal steel transformed into a sweeping electronic wail.  As the song finished the lights, indeed, came on and left the audience rather stunned, although they did coax the band back for a quick encore of yet another new tune, “Are You Ready For the Country.”


The Stray Gators tour was largely written out of Young’s recorded history by virtue of the live album from the tour, “Time Fades Away,” being long out of print on vinyl and never released on CD. Like Young’s Santa Cruz performance, it’s not a pleasant listen, with the band charged with adrenaline and Young’s voice a hoarse remnant of the one that had made him such an easy listening success a couple of years earlier.  Much like “Tonight’s the Night,” which he recorded with an entirely different band save for sole holdover Ben Keith later that year, the album is still a riveting listen, a no-holds-barred diary of a relatively dark time in Young’s life. The good news for Santa Cruz was the show marked the beginning of a beautiful friendship, which continued with his periodic stealth appearances at places like Margarita’s, the Coconut Grove and, most often, the Catalyst for decades to come.

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