This denuded 1970 solo live date, situated subsequent to the newly released After the Gold Rush and before his equally well-received Harvest, finds Neil Young at the peak of his ruminative powers. But, maybe more importantly, without any of the masks he’d try on in the coming years. This is Young at his most confessional, his most direct, free of the venom that has so often dominated his more recent offerings, and perhaps at his finest.
Live at the Cellar Door — set for release on December 10, 2013 as a two-disc set on both CD and vinyl — catches up with Young in the immediate demise of his heralded, though very short lived, association with Crosby Stills and Nash. His work with Buffalo Springfield had ended just two years prior. Where Young was headed then seemed very much in doubt, at least from the outside looking in, as he set up for what ostensibly was to be a six-night warm up at Washington D.C.’s Cellar Door before a December booking at Carnegie Hall.
Whatever his worries might have been in ’70, or perhaps because of them, he holds nothing back. Young’s voice, quivering with portent and determinedly confidential, is so near that it’s easy to imagine that he is singing only to you — a riveting, sometimes almost uncomfortable experience. Live at the Cellar Door demands to be played in order (like albums used to be), if for no other reason than it seems like cutting someone off in the middle of a particularly intimate revelation to start skipping around.
“Tell Me Why,” “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” and the twilit title track from the months-old After the Gold Rush are, in retrospect, perhaps some of the least surprising things here. But it’s illuminating to find Young sounding so raw and personal, literally feeling his way through the songs. And they find still deeper resonance when paired with seminal solo efforts like “Cinnamon Girl” (utterly transformed by Young here, who sings contemplatively from the piano); Springfield gems like “I Am a Child”; and newly composed tracks like “See the Sky About the Rain” and “Bad Fog of Loneliness.” They connect, in some ways, like a single story with many chapters, revealing a deeper pain (and less of his modern-day simmering anger) at the way things sometimes turn out.
Young finds a way to imbue songs like “Old Man” and “Expecting to Fly” with something that’s tougher, darker, more confrontational or at least more straight forward, than anything we’ve heard from the familiar studio versions — only without bending to rage. When Young introduces “Flying on the Ground is Wrong,” after some suitably disjointed feedback, by admitting that the song is “about dope,” the crowd titters appreciably. Young, in one of many deeply revealing moments here, allows himself to chuckle a bit at first with the fans before diving in.
See, on Live at the Cellar Door — the third 1970-71-era offering to be featured in Young’s Archive Performance Series, after Live at Massey Hall and Live at the Fillmore, and maybe the very best — Young is playing for keeps. But he’s still willing to let you in.