[6 January 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Considering Neil Young already released Live at Massey Hall 1971, another solo acoustic show that was recorded just a couple months after Live at the Cellar Door, it’d be easy to accuse Young of gilding the lily. But this is how Young’s Archive Series has gone. Instead of delving into the darkest, least explored corners—recordings with the Gators, for instance—he gives us something we’re very familiar with, his early 1970s acoustic work, sandwiched between After the Gold Rush, released in August of 1970, and Harvest, which came out early in 1972.
It also doesn’t help that a bunch of songs from this set are also contained on Massey Hall. In fact, Cellar Door even one-ups Massey Hall, giving us an even earlier version of “Bad Fog of Loneliness”, which had previously been issued only as part of that 1971 show (and later as a studio cut on The Archives: 1963-1972). On its surface, then, this new addition to the archive series seems to be retreading ground.
But what we often forget about Neil Young is that, as frustratingly stubborn as he can be in his vision, his vision also catches the right stuff in its sights more often than not. And so it is with Live at the Cellar Door, a beautiful and intimate set that stands in fascinating contrast to Massey Hall. That 1971 show, which was part of the Journey Through the Past Tour, feels like a celebration. Neil Young wails and bays out those songs, the crowd sounds enormous, and they react to tons of songs in the set as if they are their favorites. It’s also a preamble to the triumph of Harvest.
Live at the Cellar Door, though, comes in the wake of the softer, bittersweet shadows of After the Gold Rush, and the setting feels far closer to Young and his songs. The crowd is lively, appreciative, but also hushed, rapt by Young’s performance and, of course, pushed in close by the smaller space. The recording is also far closer to Young, so the opening chords of “Tell Me Why” and “Only Love Can Break Your Heart” are stunning and clear. Sure, they’re songs you’ve heard a thousand times, but these crisp performances are still fresh, vital in a subtler way than the big singing of Massey Hall.
And it’s not just the space that conveys this closeness. Neil Young himself seems close to these songs, close to his performance. Young’s image as a singer-songwriter has always been a little inverted, a little backwards. Instead of the troubadour, start with yourself and work out model, Young’s work always feels like it starts with the landscape and works in. You can’t separate Young from the wide-open parts of Canada he sings about because Young himself can’t separate from them. But here that open space is at a minimum and Young puts himself out there first. He sounds in turns both heartened and weary in this exposure. He, indeed, sounds both “young enough to repaint” and “old enough to sell.”
This shifting focus brings on a new found delicacy. “Cinnamon Girl”, the song that crunches out its own unique crag in the guitar heroics of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, is here presented as a pensive piano tune. On Massey Hall, Young belts out “Old Man”, singing to the rafters on the chorus. Here, in his first performance of the song, he sings each word as if it might splinter or break. It’s soft and deliberate and a beautiful version of the song, one that makes you rethink it top to bottom.
There are also moments that are excellent in all the ways you expect, from the ringing chords of “Down by the River” to the gentle piano work of “See the Sky About to Rain”. Overall, though, there is something surprising about Live at the Cellar Door. The first surprise is that songs we know this well can still sound so shockingly good, can still contain little minefields of surprises. But it’s also a curious moment of pause, a moment for Young to get close to his songs, to look back on where he was, before he charges into the massive success of Harvest, before the new decade really gets going. It’s the sound of a guy unaware of what’s about to happen, just fascinated by where he is, by where these songs came from, and how they feel—both to him and to us.