As one of the most chameleonic and prolific figures in rock’s great history, few artists have as deep a treasure trove of unreleased recordings as Neil Young. As part of his wonderfully illuminating “Performance Archive” series, Young is releasing a solo performance from his six-night stand at Washington D.C venue the Cellar Door in late 1970 on December 10th.
The album provides an extraordinarily intimate look into Young’s creative mind at this critical apex in his career. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young had made Young a superstar; but that partnership had recently disintegrated in a mess of infighting and drugs.
He was also coming off of the recent release of After the Goldrush, a rich, sweeping masterpiece that only helped to bolster his status in the public eye.
Live At the Cellar Door is notable for containing Young’s first public performances of “Old Man” and “See the Sky About To Rain.” “Old Man” is still in its nativity. Stripped of the banjos, pedal steel, and soaring vocals of the version that would later appear on his next album, Harvest, it isn’t quite a masterpiece yet. However, “See the Sky About To Rain” is absolutely exquisite. Young’s piano playing moves the track along with more passion and power than the hazy, country-ish studio rendition that would appear three years later on On the Beach.
Throughout the set, Young appears more comfortable and in control on his acoustic than on the piano. Legendary rocker “Cinnamon Girl” makes a somewhat awkward transition to the keys; which even Young appears to notice when he remarks, somewhat humorously, at the song’s conclusion “that’s the first time I ever did that one on the piano.” He even spends about three minutes before closer “Flying On the Ground Is Wrong” joking around with the audience about his piano playing, and how he has only been “playing seriously, for less than a year.” But, despite these occasional potholes, its hard not to get chills when Young sings “It’s over” in that impeccable chorus of the piano-driven “Birds.”
On the acoustic, as always, Young is in prime form. After the Goldrush tracks, “Tell Me Why,” “Only Love Can Break Your Heart,” and “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” are executed with awe-inspiring ease. “I Am A Child” breezes by with the same exuberance and enthusiasm of the song’s narrator.
But the set’s highlight is the acoustic take on Young’s epic electric classic “Down By the River.” Stripped of the distortion that dominates the studio version, the song’s chilling emotional core is cast into the open. Young’s voice quavers in the hushed verses; seemingly in preparation for the delivery of the murderous chorus.
Young once said of the Archives “Some of it is good, some of it is crap that wasn’t released- there’s a reason. Take a look, see what it is.” With the Archives, one of rock’s greatest songwriters is giving his audience a unique chance to examine and dissect his creative process. The Performance Archives specifically, have proven to be an exceptional look into Young’s development as a rock icon. Showing Young at a fascinating crossroads in his career, Live At the Cellar Door is no exception.
Find out more at http://neilyoung.com
Jackson Maxwell is a freshman at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He is double majoring in history and journalism. He is a staff writer for the Massachusetts Daily Collegian and has his own music blog entitled “Two Dudes, Two Computers” with his friend Zach Newman. You can follow him here at twodudestwocomputers.tumblr.com/ or http://themotorcade.tumblr.com/