Neil Young: Live At The Cellar Door – album review

Neil Young – Live At The Cellar Door (Warner Bros)

CD / DL

Out Now

Live At The Cellar Door – the latest live release from the Neil Young archives is a spell-binding snapshot of an evolving talent, road-testing early songs, soon to become classics.

Back in 1970, 25-year-old Neil Young played a series of gigs at The Cellar Door in Washington D.C. It would be a while before he would enjoy the global success of sell-out tours, festival headline slots and adulation from generations of people but here, the fresh-faced Canadian sounds wise beyond his years.

With no signs of slowing down, Young returns to these shores in July (at British Summer Time). He may be pushing 70, but with his band, Crazy Horse, the man and his music puts younger rockers to shame and it’s in this guise these days that we hear most of his live material.

So, there’s something really touching and poignant about hearing the young Young sing an awesome acoustic Old Man, with its piercing lyrics and memorable tune to less than 200 people: “doesn’t mean that much to me, to mean that much to you”, he quivers, in the calm, intimate setting. Despite being recorded over 40 years ago, it feels fresh – a testament to not only the production but the brilliance of the material.

Part of the Neil Young archives Performance Series, Live At The Cellar Door features half a dozen songs from his 1970 album, After The Goldrush. Opening this live set with the the prophetic Tell Me Why we get an instant glimpse of a modern day philosopher: “is it hard to make arrangements with yourself, when you’re old enough to repay but young enough to sell?”. The uplifting tune merges beautifully with the late 60s musical vibe and nods knowingly at Young’s Buffalo Springfield days.

He introduces Only Love Will Break Your Heart as a tune off his new album – a special glimpse into the early days of what would become one of his most well-known and timeless songs. The simple strums set to the inspirational and powerful lyrics combine with the wavering of Young’s voice to create an unguarded emotional moment.

Tackling a variety of themes, Young shows early on his adeptness for commenting on social situations – After The Goldrush – articulating the overwhelming emotions of love and loss – Expecting To Fly – (which warrants one of the biggest applauses) and Bad Fog Of Loneliness. The simplicity of the music suits Young’s high-pitched tones perfectly and makes for a spell-binding performance. At times, you get the impression Young feels as naked as his songs.

A practiced musician, he moves seamlessly from strings to keys for the most stripped-back version of Cinnamon Girl you’ll ever hear. Things pick up pace a little with Down By The River, providing a sucker punch to the gut with lyrics which could easily translate into the most heartbreaking film script, while the more defiant Don’t Let It Bring You Down offers up a mantra for living: “don’t let it bring you down, it’s only castles burning…”

I Am A Child – with its mid-tempo melody and equally terrific lyrics – makes for an unexpected highlight, alongside the final. The show (and album) ends with a light-hearted moment between Young and audience – something rarely seen in his recent stadium and arena shows. “I always slow down after the last song,” he says. “I’ve been playing piano for…almost a year,” he shrugs, tinkling the keys in the most professional way, “you’d laugh too, if this is what you did for a living” he adds, before introducing a very old song about dope – Flying On The Ground Is Wrong. The anecdote showcases a wonderfully down to earth side of Young and is reminiscent of some of Ryan Adams’ inter-song banter. Flying On The Ground… is to Young what Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground is to Willie Nelson. Unrivaled beauty and longevity.

This is not background music. If you’re not devoting your concentration to this album you could miss out on its true beauty and brilliance. An intense, piercing offering from the Young archives which could act as a vital addition to any fan’s collection or a decent introduction to some of his finest material.

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Live at the Cellar Door is available to download (but Mr Young wouldn’t like that much) or buy on CD now, from all good music retailers.

Read more of Laura Williams’ Louder Than War writing here.

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