Graded on a Curve:
Neil Young, Live at the Cellar Door

Live at the Cellar Door is the latest entry in Neil Young’s Archive Series. While it’s certainly a must for his hardcore fans, the set is also engaging enough to be of interest to more casual listeners. Recorded late in 1970 shortly after the release of After the Gold Rush, it paints a vivid portrait of an essential rock figure before his fame had been completely established.

Neil Young’s edging up on a half century of artistic vitality. Unsurprisingly, it’s a run of productivity that features an unusual number of highpoints along with a sprinkling of a few rough patches, but while far from unprecedented his stature ain’t exactly typical either. Most musicians are lucky if they remain relevant for five years, much less across the span for five decades. And from this vantage point it can be a little difficult to remember that in a solo context Young underwent a substantial period of development.

The studio albums do bear this out, and yet because of their status as the early and quite successful motions of a true great, this growth can still be easily misplaced. For instance, his at times very strong but ultimately less than classic ’68 solo debut Neil Young is often overlooked, with the omission perhaps reflective of its lack of chart status upon release.

It came directly after the ending of Buffalo Springfield and prior to his first great solo disc, ‘69’s Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, and those who do engage with Neil Young, this writer included, often chalk up its minor qualities to errors in judgment related to presentation and production. Giving the record a fresh listen bears out these assumptions.

While technically a solo album, that second effort also inaugurated his fruitful association with Crazy Horse, and in reality it’s a sheer beauty in the annals of rock collaboration. From there he joined up with Crosby, Stills, & Nash, rounding them out to a four piece, and while Young did somewhat improve their sound amongst much legendary bickering between he and ex-Buffalo Springfield bandmate Stills, I’ve never held much affection for the music of the combo (which is odd since I’m an unabashed fan of all the principals other work from before and in some cases after CSN&Y’s Hawaiian island breakup.)

One thing’s for sure; Déjà Vu was the polar opposite of a solo affair. CSN&Y did detail that Young (Crazy Horse aside) was best-suited for making music on his own, and his first great LP of a fully solo nature came with 1970’s After the Gold Rush. Wide-ranging but focused, eccentric (the title cut’s weirdness really endures) and yet inviting, and detailing Neil’s strengths in folk, rock (“Southern Man,” natch) and even piano balladry, listening to it can make it seem that the second time was a charm; in the first year of the ‘70s, Young had truly arrived as a confident lone man.

And that’s a huge part of why Live at the Cellar Door is such a welcome release. Taken from six shows that date from between November 30th and December 2nd of 1970, they capture Young in a very intimate locale playing not with the secure ease of a veteran, but with the carefulness of an artist who hadn’t yet hit his full performance stride.

Of course, much of this comes down to the circumstance of the venue. The Cellar Door, a tiny Washington, DC club that opened in 1965 and closed in 1981, was valued for its intimacy, particularly by acoustic musicians. While I never attended a show there, based on previous live LPs by Richie Havens and an especially celebrated one from local progressive bluegrass outfit The Seldom Scene, it’s safe to describe The Cellar Door’s vibe as being analogous with that of a folk club (though it’s important to note that Miles Davis’ 6CD The Cellar Door Sessions was also recorded there.)

That folky ambiance comes through immediately on this disc’s opener, “Tell Me Why.” After a plainspoken introduction and a short round of well-mannered applause, Young gives a short hello and then plunges right in. “Tell Me Why” is also the first track on After the Gold Rush, so his choice of leading with it is no great shock, and a portion of the crowd responds appreciatively as they recognize the chords.

And Young plays it close to the studio version, but with a subtle increase in urgency that’s similar to how scores of other performers have taken the stage to go it alone. Lacking the vocal harmonies from the LP, with just his own voice and acoustic to carry it, his fingerpicking is slightly fuller-bodied and his singing a bit edgier.

“Only Love Can Break Your Heart,” comes next, and the contrast between the album take and the nude presentation found here is even deeper than on “Tell Me Why.” With no drummer and none of the studio-craft that helped to made it a Top 40 hit, Young still succeeds wonderfully at communicating the tune’s emotional power.

His skill on guitar and piano is simply excellent throughout Live at the Cellar Door, qualities only enhanced by a source recording of unexpected warmth. So much so that the muffled cough heard during “After the Gold Rush” detracts not a bit from Young’s magnificent reading. But where the first two tracks reveal an extremely talented guy running through a pair of choice selections that just happen to serve as good audience warm-ups, “After the Gold Rush” is frankly a take-it-or-leave-it proposition.

That is, if one can’t abide Neil’s high-register vocals and to a lesser extent his poetic lyrical imagery, then one is going to have a difficult time focusing on the beauty of his piano playing. If this record is indicative of how the actual Cellar Door live sets unfolded (and given the initial lack of interest in issuing this material on the part of Young, I’ve no reason to doubt that it is), Neil seemed to understand this. It’s enlightening to hear him attempt to pull in the crowd before stepping out onto a ledge with one of his more dicey numbers.

Those assembled to hear him are openly approving but also noticeably polite in their response, much different from the raucous hometown atmosphere essayed on Live at Massey Hall 1971. Interestingly, these Cellar Door shows were intended as warm-ups after a five month layoff for an upcoming engagement at Carnegie Hall, and while no rustiness is apparent in the performances herein, the knowledge that Young was still using a smaller stage as prep work for a much larger gig is discernible.

The crowd is with him for “After the Gold Rush” though, and the goodwill leads into the first of this disc’s interesting detours. “Expecting to Fly,” which hails from the terrific Buffalo Springfield Again LP, is given a solo piano version substantially different from the original. Much as I dig the wooziness of the album take, the stripped down and retooled nature of this one is also quite appealing.

Neil remains out on that ledge, and by song’s end he’s hammering on the club’s Steinway like he’s a not-so distant relation of Charles Ives. Following this, it’s back to guitar for a nice reading of “Bad Fog of Loneliness,” a relative obscurity in Young’s catalog that might intensify some folk’s assumption that Live at the Cellar Door is mainly geared toward aficionados.

It’s also on Live at Massey Hall 1971, but I happen to like this performance better, and the feeling extends to this rec as a whole. Massey is surely a lot of fun, but it’s also Neil playing a show to the delight of some obvious homers. Cellar Door is instead the sound of man offering up his art in the short period before he’d become an institution.

The record that helped to ensconce him in that role was his next studio LP, ‘72’s Harvest. It’ll likely register as a mite predictable of me to state that Harvest isn’t amongst my favorite Young efforts, but that’s the skinny. I don’t necessarily dislike the alb as much as I’m just consistently underwhelmed by it; give me the unkempt heaviness of the Crazy Horse material any day.

With that said the version of “Old Man” that’s here goes down pretty easy, largely because it lacks the post-hippie Middle-of-the-Road-isms of the Harvest take. Next is a swell piano run-through of “Birds” and an even better “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” on guitar. Both are from After the Gold Rush, and the way he focuses this show upon material of such then-recent vintage, and in a manner not unlike any number of well-established but far from famous contemporary artists, is quite attractive.

But his “See the Sky About To Rain,” performed on piano, combines with “Old Man” and “Bad Fog of Loneliness” to shed light on an era where the audiences were maybe a little more welcoming of something other than just a savvy mix of new and old in the live setting. And this openness could result in getting to hear wildly different interpretations of well-known stuff.

That’s the case with “Cinnamon Girl,” which Young tackles on piano for an intriguing if not breathtaking result. Stating to the crowd afterward that it was the first time he’d played the song on the instrument (presumably he meant in performance, I can’t imagine it was the first time ever), as it unfolds his candor is underscored through his noticeably growing confidence and forcefulness of execution.

The second Buffalo Springfield number found here is “I Am a Child” (sourced from their third and final LP, ‘68’s underrated Last Time Around), and if a gesture far less bold than “Cinnamon Girl,” it’s highly assured and stronger overall. However, the differing nature of these two cuts intertwines to great and unlikely success on “Down By the River.”

To be blunt, if prior to the release of this LP somebody had asked me if I wanted to hear this specific tune rendered solo on an acoustic, I would’ve instantly had visions of a really horrid open-mic night directly followed by an uncontrollable shudder as I uttered an emphatic reply in the negative. If they told me it was actually done by Neil, I probably would’ve listened out of sheer curiosity, but my hopes wouldn’t have been very high.

And prior to hearing this one, I was braced for disappointment. But while not as massive as what’s found on Everybody Knows, Young does do a fine job of recapturing the tune’s emotional heights in the absence of the famous version’s raw musicality. Unlike “Cinnamon Girl,” which if not entirely dependent upon full-cylinder rock execution for maximum effectiveness still does lose a considerable something in the adjustment, “Down By the River” is more easily carried over to a non-electrified loner environment.

Closer “Flying on the Ground is Wrong,” the last and most wildly divergent (and rewarding) of the dips into Buffalo’s back catalog (from their very good ’66 debut), is proceeded by some extended joking around with the attendees, notably the only instance on the entire record (though it’s safe to assume that other such occasions were omitted or edited out.) It’s a revealing bit of discourse, legitimately funny while also reflective of a brief, fascinating moment in Young’s career trajectory.

With a Top Ten album climbing the charts, he was accurately described as a budding star. But he was also playing live in an insanely small room, his sets doubling as practice for a much bigger two-night stand directly on the horizon, a situation familiar to many up-and-comers. And later in his career Young would try to escape and even derail his post-Harvest fame numerous times as he headed down all sorts of unlikely roads.

But a path impossible to retrace is the one leading to the intersection of surging creativity and potential that landed him on The Cellar Door’s stage during the closing weeks of 1970. This is the evidence of that moment, and it’s a revelatory document.


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