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When Donny Hathaway, Thelonious Monk And Neil Young Hit A Turning Point

Live at the Cellar Door, the new album from Neil Young, was recorded in 1970. (Courtesy of the artist)

It's the fall of 1970. Neil Young takes the stage at a small club in Washington, D.C. His career is heading in a new direction: His folk-rock group, Buffalo Springfield, has dissolved; Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young is on the way out, and he's going solo.

His new album, Live at the Cellar Door, is one of three recent live albums, all from about the same time period. Thelonious Monk's Paris 1969 performance preceded Young's, while one disc of a four-CD anthology from the late R&B and soul singer Donny Hathaway, Never My Love, was recorded in 1971.

In a discussion with NPR's Melissa Block, music critic Tom Moon looks back at the time when all three albums were recorded. Moon says each record shows an influential musician at a turning point in his career.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We'd like to welcome to our stage, Neil Young.

(APPLAUSE)

BLOCK: It's the fall of 1970, Neil Young takes the stage in a small club in Washington, D.C.

NEIL YOUNG: Hi, folks.

BLOCK: And his career is turning in a new direction. His folk rock group Buffalo Springfield has dissolved. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young are on the way out, and Neil Young is going solo.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TELL ME WHY")

YOUNG: (Singing) Sailing hard ships through broken harbors out on the waves in the night.

BLOCK: This recording, "Live at the Cellar Door," is one of three live albums from three different artists, all from about the same time period and all recently released. They show musicians at turning points in their careers. And joining me to talk more about them is our music critic, Tom Moon. Tom, welcome back.

TOM MOON, BYLINE: Great to be with you.

BLOCK: And, Tom, we hear Neil Young here performing in 1970, at the small club in Washington, these are warm-up dates for a gig he's about to do at Carnegie Hall.

MOON: Yes. He booked three nights at the Cellar Door, which was this little, tiny, almost a shoebox of a room. Essentially, it was for his purpose of getting used to being a completely solo performer.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TELL ME WHY")

YOUNG: (Singing) Tell me, why. Tell me, why is it hard to make arrangements with yourself when you're old enough to repay but young enough to sell?

BLOCK: Such a great intimate feeling for these songs, Tom, I mean, just Neil Young, either on guitar or on piano on some of the songs. And it's very raw and unpolished.

MOON: That's right. With Buffalo Springfield and CSNY, he was playing arenas and big places. And this is him kind of orienting himself to a different scale entirely. He's thinking very small, both in terms of the instrumentation and also in terms of the songs are simple. A song like "Tell Me Why" there, very, very earnest. And using a very straightforward melody to express vulnerability, which, of course, his voice just takes you to that immediately.

BLOCK: Oh, yeah, that haunting high sound of his. He does his song "Cinnamon Girl" on this live album on piano.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CINNAMON GIRL")

YOUNG: (Singing) A dreamer of pictures, I run in the night. You see us together chasing the moonlight, my cinnamon girl.

MOON: He's not at all an accomplished pianist. But he's thought very carefully about how to translate what he usually hears and what he'd written to the piano, and it kind of works. It's beautiful. It's different. It changes the tone of the tune, I think.

BLOCK: So that's "Neil Young: Live at the Cellar Door" solo in 1970. Let's listen to a recording from one year later, 1971, another artist at a turning point, and it's the late R&B and soul singer Donny Hathaway.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU'VE GOT A FRIEND")

DONNY HATHAWAY: (Singing) When you're down and troubled and you need some love and care, and nothing, nothing is going right.

CORNISH: And, Tom, this is Donny Hathaway from a new box set. It's called "Never My Love," four CDs and one of those four is this live show from New York, from the Greenwich Village Club, The Bitter End, in October of 1971.

MOON: That's right. And that was a three-night run. Those who really love Donny Hathaway might know some of that material appeared in 1972 on the album called "Donny Hathaway: Live." And they had a lot of material left over. That's what's represented on this box and it's just wonderful to hear.

BLOCK: And, Tom, he's doing a lot of cover songs on this live collection, right? This is, of course, Carol King's "You've Got A Friend." What else?

MOON: Yeah. And interesting covers, I mean, sort of obvious, I guess. In 1971 if you were singing R&B and soul music, you couldn't escape Marvin Gaye and "What's Going On," and he does a magic version of that song. But he also does John Lennon's "Jealous Guy." And he does a wonderful version of the Blood, Sweat & Tears hit "I Love You More Than You'll Ever Know."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I LOVE YOU MORE THAN YOU'LL EVER KNOW")

HATHAWAY: (Singing) Is that any way for a man to carry on? Do you think I want my loved one gone? Said, I love you more than you'll ever know, more than you'll ever know.

BLOCK: And, Tom, this album, 1971, came eight years before Donny Hathaway died. Was this the peak of his popularity?

MOON: I think it was the peak. He had hits with Roberta Flack after this. The record "Donny Hathaway & Roberta Flack" came out in '72. But he very quickly stops writing and the stuff in the studio that follows is a lot of instrumental stuff. He really stopped recording. He ends up having only three studio records and the live record that were issued during his lifetime. So it's kind of a loss. We don't know what we didn't get.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I LOVE YOU MORE THAN YOU'LL EVER KNOW")

HATHAWAY: (Singing) This is the reason why, because I love you, yeah. Yes, I do. Yeah.

BLOCK: OK. So that's Donny Hathaway live at The Bitter End in 1971. And, Tom, our last live record that we're going to talk about captures an artist at the end of his career, and that's Thelonious Monk from 1969.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: And this is a concert in Paris at the Salle Pleyel. And, Tom, this recording is just a few years before Thelonious Monk stops performing altogether.

MOON: Yeah. He had also just lost his longtime contract with Columbia Records and that marks the end of what he shared with the world, in terms of new studio recordings. And I feel in this that he's trying very hard to be the steadfast warrior of jazz that he'd been for much of the '60s. I mean, he was really an influential part of jazz for such a long time and he very quickly disappears from live playing altogether.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CREPUSCULE WITH NELLIE")

BLOCK: It is great also on this album, Tom, to hear solo Thelonious Monk at the piano. We're listening here to "Crepuscule with Nellie."

MOON: Yeah. On these solo pieces, it seems to me that he's gathering the whole history of jazz. There's references to Harlem stride-style playing and his own harmonic ideas that are melded together in this wonderful way.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CREPUSCULE WITH NELLIE")

BLOCK: I've been talking with Tom Moon about three live albums: Thelonious Monk, "Paris 1969," Donny Hathaway's "Live at The Bitter End, 1971" from the box set "Never My Love: The Anthology," and "Neil Young: Live At the Cellar Door" from 1970. Tom, thanks so much.

MOON: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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