Neil Young was pretty beat down during the fall of 1970. Following the success of “Ohio,” an anthem of outrage inspired by the Kent State shootings, Crosby Stills Nash & Young had imploded with no little acrimony. He was so fatigued from touring that even though he had released his third solo album, After the Gold Rush, in August, he took a five-month break from the road. Young ended that hiatus in late November with a string of shows at the tiny Cellar Door in Washington, D.C., intending them as rehearsals for a two-night stand in Carnegie Hall.
Live at the Cellar Door may not be revelatory, especially after the release of the contemporaneous Live at Massey Hall a few years ago, but it shows Young in fine, low-key form. These performances reveal an artist refreshed and relaxed onstage, alternating between piano and acoustic guitar as Young jokes with the audience about the immense instrument onstage (“I had it put in my contract that I would only play on a nine-foot Steinway grand piano”). Ever the tinkerer, he debuted two new songs (including the soaring plea “Old Man”) and tried out new approaches to older songs like “Down by the River” and “Cinnamon Girl.” The latter in particular is dramatically transformed when played on piano, which lends it a more introspective vibe than the lustier full-band version. There are missed notes and flubbed passages, which point to the Cellar Door shows as rehearsals, but Young seems to prize that warts-and-all quality, as though the dissonant piano chords and sourly reverberated strums reinforce the pathos and regret of the junkie anthems of this rocky period in his career.