Neil Young took an important solo step on 'Live at the Cellar Door'
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
In between songs, there’s enough precision to note near-individual hand claps from those in attendance, revealing that this is a tiny show in a tiny venue. That there was a budding superstar on stage alone playing songs that would become giant hits early in the 1970s is just one of many contradictions captured on Live at the Cellar Door, item no. 2.5 in Neil Young’s growing Performance Series Archive.
This stand found him shortly past the release of After the Goldrush, which, on the heels of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s success, found him fully in the mainstream spotlight. In spite of that, he spent six nights at Washington, D.C.’s Cellar Door, a club that fit fewer than 200 folks, and the distance from his famous friends serves him well on these solo performances.
Immediately apparent from the opening “Tell Me Why” is the stunning sound quality. Far from having to carry the sort of caveat emptor that’s often necessary with this kind of archival release, the clarity and warmth of Young’s Performance Series releases have been uniformly spectacular. He’s obviously taken care of his tapes through the years, and when he’s ready to let one out into the wild, it’s able to stand on its own.
He trades playfulness with dead-serious rumination and back. “Don’t Let it Bring You Down” is as stark and heavy here as on any version that has made it out into the public cannon, just Young and his guitar and one of the more obtuse lyrics in his catalogo. Meanwhile, he’s already beginning to toy with audiences and expectations, giving “Cinnamon Girl” the kind of piano-led drive that he’d later use on “Are You Ready for the Country?” He also plays early versions of “Old Man,” “See the Sky About to Rain” and “Bad Fog of Loneliness” that were likely unknown to the audience.
And when songs were familiar, they were often given radical readjustments. Here, “Expecting to Fly” transforms from a lush, string-based ode to the Beatles that had appeared on Buffalo Springfield’s second album to a beautiful, stripped-down piano ballad. All of the changes that hinged on grand arrangements in its studio incarnation are swapped for simple shifts on the keys and Young’s trembling voice.
The album’s biggest punch comes in the knockout finale of “Flying on the Ground is Wrong.” After some playful joking about his virtuosity on the piano — “I’ve been playing piano for about, I think about seriously for almost a year” — Young tackles a song from his Buffalo Springfield past that the band had Richie Furay sing. Stripped of the three guitars and extra voices and expectations of stardom and Dylan-esque cultural shockwaves, Young pours his soul into his Steinway and this song, with the closing lyrics accidentally outlining his brutally honest approach to his music:
“And if flying on the ground is wrong
Then I’m sorry to let you down
But you’re from my side of town
And I’ll miss you.”
From there, the record dwindles to applause and a fade-out. Young would keep touring and recording often, occasionally reuniting with his brothers in CSNY and reconfiguring Crazy Horse and other one-off bands as he needed. But he was, and remains, on his own path. It’s a solo trip, and this album captures a glimpse of what that meant in 1970.
E-mail Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org