Neil Young Live Album Reveals Singer-Songwriter’s Emotions

The most recent installment in Young’s Archive Performance Series captures six solo sets

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Live at the Cellar Door

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In the summer of 1970, David Crosby, Stephen Stills, and Graham Nash joined Neil Young at his Hawaii ranch to record a follow-up to CSNY’s chart-topping album, Déjà Vu. Unfortunately, things didn’t proceed as planned. Despite the Aloha State’s hospitable environs, Stills and Young were at each other’s throats. The sessions rapidly deteriorated into squabbling — Buffalo Springfield déjà vu. Though the band kept it hush-hush, CSNY was defunct.

While the legendary supergroup was on its way out, CSNY’s members were enjoying tremendous success. Over the next 10 months, Crosby (If I Could Only Remember My Name), Stills (Stephen Stills), Nash (Songs for Beginners), and Young (After the Goldrush) all released solo albums that cracked Billboard’s top 15. But, surprisingly, not everyone got behind After the GoldrushRolling Stone’s Langdon Winner dismissed it as unlistenable, likening Young’s voice to “pre-adolescent whining.” Not to be outdone by his erstwhile bandmates, the competitive Canadian continued writing new material and scheduled back-to-back concerts at Carnegie Hall.

Hoping to shake off the cobwebs following a five-month layoff, Young played a series of warmup gigs at The Cellar Door, an intimate D.C. music club. Live at the Cellar Door, the most recent installment in Young’s Archive Performance Series, captures these six solo sets. Though leaning most heavily on After the Goldrush, the prolific singer-songwriter also debuted “Old Man” and “See the Sky About to Rain”. Peppering in tracks from from Buffalo Springfield, Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, Harvest, and The Beach, Young showcased his already extensive catalogue through poignant, purposive vocals and ardent acoustic strumming.

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Leading with a trio of tracks from After the Goldrush, Young’s penetrating voice and unmatched lyrics are instantly compelling. The introspective “Tell Me Why” finds the singer grappling with unsolvable quagmires in a wounded, elegiac timber (“Is it hard to make arrangements with yourself?”). Crafting a solitary vibe on the wistful “Only Love Can Break Your Heart”, his loneliness is manifest. Dreamy, spectral “After the Goldrush” swaps Bill Peterson’s flugelhorn for a lachrymose Steinway piano that portends lightless days ahead. Emerging from a state of denial, Young conveys his distilling environmental consciousness with a high-pitched voice, “Look at Mother Nature on the run/ In the 1970s.”

Despite playing these gigs all by himself, Young doesn’t miss a beat. Without James Taylor’s six-string banjo, Ben Keith’s pedal steel guitar, and Linda Ronstadt’s harmonies, “Old Man” is all the more haunting and plaintive. Performing the song live for the very first time, Young elucidates the fundamental human desire for love and affection — and the heartache that results when it’s unfulfilled. Even without Nils Lofgren’s diaphanous electric guitar , “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” is enthralling (“Dead man lying by the side of the road/ With the daylight in his eyes”). Urging resilience in the face of burning castles and moaning sirens, the singer proffers companionship as a remedy: “Just find someone who’s turning/ And you will come around.” And, on “Cinnamon Girl” (sans Crazy Horse), Young needs only a piano and surrealistic lyrics to summon the same evocative sentiment.

Rehashing some old Buffalo Springfield material, Young samples each of the short-lived band’s three studio LPs. Unlike the sweet and symphonic “Expecting to Fly” appearing on Buffalo Springfield Again, Young’s live rendition is stark and bold. After taking a couple of minutes to josh with the audience (“I had it put in my contract so I would only play on a nine-foot Steinway piano, just for a little eccentricity”), Young comes full circle with a superb performance of “Flying On The Ground Is Wrong”, from Buffalo Springfield’s eponymous ‘66 debut.

Live at the Cellar Door reveals a singer-songwriter out to establish himself as an individual artist, rather than one component of a band. Stripped of vocal harmonies and electric guitars, the unadorned, raw songs feel unguarded and painstakingly earnest. The sound quality is impeccable on every single track, and Young’s voice has never been more emotionally charged. Apparently, CSNY’s calamitous Hawaii sessions had a silver lining after all.

Essential Tracks: “Tell Me Why”, “Only Love Can Break Your Heart”, and “Old Man”

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