Neil Young Live at the Cellar Door Gets You As Close to Neil As You're Likely to Get

Recorded during a six show stint at tiny Cellar Door, a circa 100 seat Washington D.C. basement club November 30th through December 2nd, 1970, this 13 song collection recorded by the great Henry Lewy (thanked in the credits even though he passed away in 2006) presents Neil Young as intimately and as powerfully as you'll hear him on record.

Why it took so long for this to be released is something only Neil can explain. As a showcase of pure performing and songwriting talent it most reminds me of Randy Newman/Live (Reprise RS6459) recorded at New York's Bitter End September 17th-19th and issued in 1971.

Like this one from Young, Randy Newman/Live is a singer/songwriter showcase that's almost a publisher's demo. Of course Newman was more in need of the exposure than was Young, who had already made a name for himself in Buffalo Springfield and had released the previous August After the Goldrush, which become immediately iconic. By the time this was recorded he'd also been in CSN&Y, which released the album Deja Vu that March, and by summer had split from the group, so Neil was less in need of exposure than was Newman!

Young's stage shyness obvious in his patter completely disappears when he plays and sings unplugged and closely miked. His acoustic guitar playing is rhythmically and especially dynamically nuanced. Young intersperses silence with dramatic dynamic yet impeccably clean strum-bursts all captured as harmonically rich and perfect as you'd expect from Lewy.

The openers come as expected, from After the Goldrush: "Tell Me Why", "Only Love Can Break Your Heart" and "After the Goldrush" performed on a 9 foot Steinway that Lewy's recording nails. You think Bill Evans' piano sounds good in The Village Vanguard recordings?

Then we get a piano rendition of "Expecting to Fly" that alone is worth the price of analog admission. Young claims later in the set that he's only been playing piano seriously for a year but whatever he lacks in technique is more than made up by pure musicality and a deft touch, particularly in terms of dynamic contrasts.

"Bad Fog of Loneliness originally intended for an appearance on The Johnny Cash television show but later shelved in favor of "The Needle and the Damage Done" and "Journey Through the Past", first appeared as a studio version on the Archives Vol. 1 Blu-ray and DVD set and later on the Live at Massey Hall reissue (also highly recommended). Then it's back to After the Gold Rush for "Old Man" and the side closer "Birds".

Side B begins with the raw "end of the '60s" disillusionment of "Don't Let It Bring You Down" from After the Gold Rush and then the tender, downcast "See The Sky About to Rain", which wasn't issued on record until 1974's On the Beach, an album that was out of print for nearly twenty years until a 2003 CD release. And finally this RSD it will again be available on AAA vinyl.

The Steinway version of "Cinnamon Girl" casts the metal classic as a Joni Mitchell-style remake; it's simple riff presenting Young with the greatest difficulty to pull off on piano but of course he does. "I Am a Child" from Buffalo Springfield's Last Time Around (really multiple solo albums as the group had split but had to fulfill a contact) is next followed by "Down by the River" on guitar.

Young concludes the compilation with his Buffalo Springfield pot song "Flying on the Ground Is Wrong" accompanied by a wry explanation that today seems obvious: "it's about dope…mostly grass": he's getting stoned on weed, his girl isn't, they can no longer connect and it's a bummer." Young prefaces his explanation by sticking his hands into the piano and producing cool sounds. "This nine foot Steinway is really outta sight."

And so is Lewy's recording. Henry managed to perfectly mike Neil's voice, his guitar, the Steinway and even the audience gets the full, perfect Lewy treatment: the handclaps are perfectly recorded, the audience spread out in an arc behind the performer. Of course they should be in front of the performer and behind you, but that's the "distortion" in two channel recordings. Trust me: when you experience the eerie purity, transparency, the tonal and textural purity of this AAA production you wouldn't give up any of it to get the "surround experience" that would inevitably compromise the "you are there in front of Neil" reality that this record produces.

My reaction to this record is that it gives you more "essence of Neil" than any of his other records. It better explains his gutsy artistic greatness. I wonder why he waited so long to give it to us? It could be that this was a difficult time in Neil's life—at least judging by the downcast songs culled from the sets. Were there any that were more upbeat omitted all these years later to make the point?

Maybe he waited until it could be perfectly mastered, pressed and gatefold-presented as it is here.

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vince's picture

I received my copy a couple weeks ago.  I found it mind blowing for two reasons;

1. It sounds really good.  I agree with your assessment that Cellar Door is a 10 and Live at Massey Hall is an 11.  Massey Hall does sound just a bit better; crazy good!  Both have the, you-are-there, sound that seems to capture everything of import.  

2. I can not imagine playing solo like this.  It has to be very intense to be the only person on the stage.  This may help to explain why the music is so darned good.  I must confess I did not realize that Live at Massey Hall was just Neil for several songs.  Then it hit me; wow.

If you like Cellar Door you will like Massey Hall and vice versa. 

I sure hope Neil keeps on digging in the vaults!  If he keeps digging, I will keep buying!

AnalogJ's picture

The question is, for a somewhat casual fan such as myself, who already has the Canterbury and Massey Hall on vinyl, is there anything Neil is saying here that he hasn't said with those other live sets? Or is getting this more for hardcore completists or fans that need all of his recordings?

Michael Fremer's picture

If you are a 'casual' fan perhaps you have enough but this one combines an outstanding performance in an incredibly intimate setting and a Henry Lewy recording that is "you are there" quality IMO...

Paul Boudreau's picture

"I wonder why he waited so long to give it to us?"

From what I've read about Uncle Neil, it's entirely possible that he has so much "in the can" that it's tough to decide what to release and when, especially for someone who's still a working musician.

J. Carter's picture

I wish Neil didn't charge such an exorbitant amount for his LPs. $40 at my local store for single LPs? That is crazy! Psychedelic Pill is $85

amudhen's picture

Wow, terrific sound and intimate setting on this lp. Had to break outmy guitar and accompany Neil on "Old Man." Steinway sounds wonderful.

capecodder's picture

Agree with earlier poster (Massey vs. Cellar). Bought the Live at Massey Hall CD several years ago and thought it was the best album I have heard in many years.  When the 200 gram vinyl was released I immediately bought it and it became my "turn the lights out, sit down and  marvel album" that I still simply love.  Bought the Canterbury album expecting similar reaction but was underwhelmed even though it is still very good; Massey was just too big a hurdle too surpass.

When Cellar was released I was a bit unsure how it would compare but after the first play I was very pleased. However, it didn't rock my foundation like Massey did.  Maybe if it had come first it would be different. Several reviews have commented that it is very similar to Massey and thus not necessary to have unless you are really into Neil. Well, maybe but I definitely like it in my collection.  Cellar should be highly recommended but if you don't have Massey then should.

RACKIT7's picture

I bought this based on the review and I really love it. Problem is there are skips in one of the songs - Old Man. Oddly enough, I searched on Google and there are a bunch of us who have experienced the same issue - all on the same song - Old Man. A post on Acoustic Sounds stated they were able to verify the issue and sent a notice to Warner Bros they had a defect.

I am about to send my 2nd copy back (btw great service from Alex at Soundstage Direct). Bottom line, I would like to own this. Not sure if Warner has recognized the issue and is correcting it.


AnalogJ's picture

It sounds good, but on the album's information sheet, it states that it was "Mixed by John Moreland and Tim Mulligan at Redwood Digital." I don't think they mix analog there.

Furthermore, just below that, it states "Vinyl Mastering by Chris Bellman at Bernie Grundman Mastering."

They're being pretty specific here. It still sounds very good.