As a reporter, I'm painfully aware of the problems of using a tape recorder. There are so many things that can go wrong: The batteries can die, the tape can run out, the recorder can be on the wrong setting, you can forget to turn it on or even forget to even bring it. So, the fact that these performances by Neil Young from 1970 at the Cellar Door in Washington, D.C. were captured by a tape recorder and saved for more than 40 years for us to hear in 2014 is, in my opinion, pretty miraculous. I just imagine the vulnerable recorder sitting there, maybe on a stool, maybe on the stage, maybe someone holding it, as Young performs "Old Man" for the first time.
This album is certainly a gift to us: we can play it and listen to Young performing, as they say, at the peak of his powers, as if we're in the audience of the intimate venue. Young, only 25 years old at the time, had just released "After the Gold Rush," which sold well, peaking at No. 8 on the Billboard Top Pop Albums chart, and proved that Young could succeed as a solo artist without Crazy Horse or Crosby, Stills and Nash. Many of the songs performed here come from that recording, including "Only Love Can Break Your Heart" and "Don't Let it Bring You Down." Some of the other tracks are Buffalo Springfield tunes, "I am a Child" and "Expecting to Fly," and Crazy Horse recordings, "Cinnamon Girl" and "Down by the River."
But aside from the preciousness of the record, another thing that knocks you out is the magic of the songs. Even after all these years of hearing different versions of it, "Old Man" still impresses, and this recording has the added bonus of being the first public performance of it. It's slower, quieter and a little less sure than the jaunty version on "Live at Massey Hall" (2007), which was only recorded a year later.
Pictured is the album cover for Neil Young’s “Live at the Cellar Door.”
These are the kind of differences that only diehards would notice (not that I claim to be one), but unlike other critics, I don't say that this record is mostly for the completists. Unlike subpar late-career albums or low-quality rare recordings, "Live at the Cellar Door" features some of Young's best songs performed sometimes in unique ways - the only known piano version of "Cinnamon Girl" is included here - and it's just a good listen regardless of your level of fandom.
My only complaint is that toward the end of the album the songs start to drag a bit. Young's a great singer-songwriter, but it's hard to listen to even the best perform by themselves with no accompaniment for an extended period of time. If some of the songs had the liveliness of other recordings (there are some rockin' versions of "Don't Let it Bring You Down" out there), it would spice things up a bit.
Some critics have attributed Young's sometimes sluggish performance and silly banter to him potentially being high during the concert. I have no idea, so I can't really comment on that. But let me just say that it's definitely not out of the question.
3 stars out of 5.
DOWNLOAD NOW:?"I am a Child"