SMI New Music Preview: Neil Young ‘Live at the Cellar Door’


So, Neil Young came out with an old new album. Live at the Cellar Door is the newest collection of archival sessions from the Buffalo Springfield alum, performed during his run…(if you couldn’t guess) at the Cellar Door.

Late 1970, in preparation for his two nights at Carnegie Hall that December, Young booked a six-show set at the Cellar Door in D.C. to rehearse – and record – in front of an audience. Since the man has had such a long career[1], let me put this into perspective for you: He’d left Buffalo Springfield two years before. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, featuring Crazy Horse, had come out a little over a year ago. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young had split in July; it had only been a year since their first live performance! After the Gold Rush had just come out in August, a few months prior the Cellar Door sessions, and Young was riding high on the positive reception. Harvest, arguably his most recognizable album, wouldn’t come out for another two years.[2]

The stripped-down piano version of ‘Cinnamon Girl’ is reason alone to buy the album.

According to people who had been to the Cellar Door back in the day, it was the definition of a casual listening experience. The stage took up more than half of the room and there were no barriers between you and the music.

Live at the Cellar Door consists of the thirteen best recordings from these shows. There’s a few Springfield tunes on there – “I Am a Child” & “Flying on the Ground Is Wrong” – among an assortment of tracks from those three solo records.


Armed with an acoustic guitar and a nine-foot Steinway grand piano, Young reimagines almost every song you probably know him for. Some, like “Tell Me Why” and “Birds”, don’t vary far from their studio counterparts beyond his inflection. “After the Gold Rush” is identical to the recording, except it’s missing that killer flugelhorn solo by Bill Peterson. A stripped-down piano version of “Cinnamon Girl” is reason enough for you to buy this album. That, and the fact that these sessions were the first time Young ever played “Old Man” publically.[3] Again, two years before it would make its way onto an album.

This album is great because of its nostalgia. Though these recordings aren’t proof of it, this was the peak of music when analog first met digital. After the Gold Rush had just been recorded with vocals done at Sound City Studio in Van Nuys[4], five years later Fleetwood Mac would do Rumours here. Let It Be was out in 1970, the world was between Let It Bleed and Sticky Fingers, and The Dark Side of the Moon was just around the corner. Today, the release of Live at the Cellar Door in 2013 is a monumental occurrence. Not because it’s touching on fresh sounds that have never been done before, but because it comes at a time in modern music when we need a smack to the face to remind us of how far we’ve fallen off course from the simplicity and emotional charge of those early records. Young’s last new album, 2012’s Psychedelic Pill, featuring three songs each running over fifteen-minutes long, was a great jam album – all the old guys back together in the barn, just riffing where they felt it – but this is Neil dusting off the High School football trophy; that was merely a Thanksgiving Day pickup game.

My favorite track on the album is his performance of Buffalo Springfield’s “Flying on the Ground Is Wrong”; half for the song itself but mostly for the dialogue that precedes it. Neil starts by gliding along the keys with one foot on the sustain pedal to create a psychedelic haze, plucking the strings inside. While he strums, he chuckles to himself, “I’ve been playing piano… I think seriously for about a year.” It’s haunting; the way he’s laughing one minute; the next warning, “You’re life is crazy.” The take is simpler and feels much more authentic than the original Springfield recording. The loss of the cheesy 60’s pop harmonies and obvious guitar breaks leaves you with a pure message from the heart, fully embracing the lyrical content.[5]

What I love most about this album is the versatility. Heavy rockers like “Cinnamon Girl” and “Down By the River” sound just as good with or without Ralph Molina’s drums and their pre-grunge electric solos. But that’s how everything is with Young. His music is versatile.

A couple months back, I had a long talk with a guitarist friend about the discography of Neil Young. Armed with a few six-packs and listening to Rust Never Sleeps in its entirety, we talked about the memories it mustered up for both of us. For me, that album brought back memories of long road trips to California and relaxing nights at home alone. Any time I am brave enough to clean the mess in my bachelor apartment, I’m always accompanied by my After the Gold Rush LP spinning in the background. My friend was just the opposite. To him, Neil Young connotes the winding-down of college parties in Eastern Washington; smoking cigarettes on the back deck at 2am after doing too much coke. But that’s exactly how Young’s career has been – to some it’s a lullaby, to others it’s the definition of Rock n’ Roll. It can be light, and it can be heavy.

Hindsight tells us the Carnegie Hall shows were a success. Young would go on to follow with Harvest, On the Beach, and countless other great albums. It’s a career any musician would be jealous of, but in the end, Neil says it best:

“You’d laugh too, you know, if this is what you did for a living.”

Rating: 8.3/10

Ian is a contributing writer at SMI. He currently studies English at UW and is both drummer and manager for the local band The Mama Rags.

[1] And most of you weren’t alive in the 70’s

[2] For the Seattle kids out there, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis played a three-night stint this week at Key Arena. Now imagine Macklemore had just gone under the radar and played a week-straight of acoustic sets, alone, at the Blue Moon last week to get ready. You’d want to be there.

[3] “…but your kids are going to love it.”

[4] If you haven’t seen the Sound City documentary yet, I definitely recommend it.

[5] Lyrics originally written by Young

Ian Cunningham is often described as either an old-soul or the most crotchety twenty-something you’ll ever meet (depending on the source), Ian holds a critical eye for modern music. Idolizing Keith Richards, Warren Zevon, and Lester Bangs, his musical preferences thrive decades prior to those of his peers. Raised in Portland, OR, he moved to Seattle in 2012 to continue drumming for the indie surf band Faire du Surf as well as to pursue an English degree from the University of Washington. Though the band has since dissolved, he is the current drummer and manager for The Mama Rags. In what little free time he has, Ian is a die-hard Seahawks fan and an avid record collector; his favorite album being Those Shocking Shaking Days. This October, he will be the proud father of a baby boy.