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Before Young was a legend

Published 11:52am Friday, December 6, 2013

Fans are about to get a unique glimpse at a musician on the cusp of becoming a music legend.

Neil Young is about ready to release “Live at the Cellar Door,” and album of songs recorded over a series of shows at the Cellar Door in Washington, D.C., in November and December of 1970.

The album features songs that are well known today, but the concerts actually featured the live debuts of “Old Man” and “See the Sky About to Rain,” and it’s one of the few times he played “Cinnamon Girl” on piano.

By that time, Young had already made a name for himself with Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, but he wasn’t the icon he is today. In fact, his most recent solo album, “After the Goldrush,” initially received mixed reviews before later being hailed as a classic.

This performance finds Young after he bought the ranch where he’d write much of 1972’s “Harvest, and it’s after he took time off from an extensive touring schedule. It’s also soon after Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young split following the successful “Déjà Vu.”

“Live at the Cellar Door” certainly reveals Young’s talent and the promise of his coming releases.

Many of young’s live performances with Crazy Horse were known for their guitar solos and straight-ahead rock, but that’s not the case here. The album is all Neil Young, as he switches off between piano and guitar to back his vocals.

To many listeners, the songs could sound like carbon copies of “Live At Massey Hall 1971.” But, that’s missing the true charm of “Live at the Cellar Door.” As a venue, the Cellar Door was only licensed for 163 seats (though more than 200 people were rumored to attend shows there). Still, that intimate atmosphere shows on the album — and makes it. At times on the Massey Hall recordings, Young, rightfully, plays up to the larger crowd in the roughly 2,700-seat venue.

Nothing is overplayed on “Live at the Cellar Door;” in fact, it almost seems like a bit of a dress rehearsal. The small venue size makes for a relaxed, subdued performance from Young on “Live at the Cellar Door.”

You can tell from the crowd noise at the beginning of the opening track, “Tell Me Why,” that this was a more informal crowd, and Young was using the dates to prepare for two bigger shows at Carnegie Hall.

It’s fascinating — and slightly eery — to hear songs like “Old Man” played without the fanfare it’s met with today. In fact, the crowd is silent throughout the song. The crowd is equally silent on “Down By The River,” and it’s a fantastic rendition of the song.

The years after these performances would propel Young to the music icon he is today, and the greatness is budding on “Live at the Cellar Door.”

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