critic’s pick 311: neil young, ‘live at the cellar door’

neil young-cellar door“You’d laugh too if this is what you did for a living,” says a giddy (and, in all likelihood, chemically enhanced) Neil Young at the close of Live at the Cellar Door, the extraordinary new entry in the veteran songsmith’s ongoing archive series of concert recordings.

Initially, you don’t know how to take the remark. Young offers it after noodling about on a nine foot Steinway piano he explains was included in his contract as an “eccentricity.” Of course, he goes on to admit he had only been playing piano “seriously” for less than a year. Ah, the trappings of a pop star.

But Young was a star nonetheless at the time of this solo outing – a late 1970 engagement at the Washington, D.C. folk/blues haven The Cellar Door. Young’s tenure in the Buffalo Springfield was behind him, as were debut runs and recordings with his garage rock troupe Crazy Horse and the superstar alliance with David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Graham Nash.

But here, Young sounds like the prototype hippy folkie. Just as James Taylor did a few months earlier with Sweet Baby James, Young recoiled into a mix of folk-rock reflections for his then-current album, After the Gold Rush. Live at the Cellar Door summons five of the more folk-directed reveries from the record in unaccompanied arrangements that vary little from the wide-eyed starkness of the Gold Rush versions. The opening Tell Me Why rolls along with a partly cloudy guitar melody that enhances a sense of romance that is desperate (“it’s so hard to make arrangements for yourself”) yet oddly hopeful. Don’t Let It Bring You Down travels a far darker path, plodding the kind of personal and social unrest in a way that seems conversational.

Both are brilliant readings but remain somewhat expected for a Young performance at the time. The surprises come with songs that bookend Gold Rush. With Buffalo Springfield, Expecting to Fly sported bittersweet, Beach Boys-style orchestration. On Live at the Cellar Door, it is laid bare in a coarse solo piano setting that establishes the work as one of the greatest (though least uplifting) love songs of Young’s career. From the other end comes See the Sky About to Rain, which wouldn’t surface in studio form until 1974’s On the Beach. This piano version is gorgeously deflating, a downward spiral journey with “signals curling on an open flame.” Sounding like Kurt Cobain without the grungy pathos, the song enforces the fact that even at this early stage of stardom, Young’s music was no laughing matter.

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