This was going to be interesting. Rosanne Cash is someone I’ve always wanted to see live for so many reasons – she’s smart, she’s funny, she has a great voice – but I don’t own any of her records so I am not familiar with her work. So anything she plays, whether old or new, would be new to me.
Cash played two sets with an intermission. The first set was her latest album The River & the Thread played in order. The album is her love song to the south; a place where both her parents were raised but where she was not. Cash didn’t spend a lot of time in the south until she was an adult. Each song had a story – some very funny, some funny and sentimental, and some sentimental.
“Etta’s Tune” is for the woman married to her father’s former bass player. They were married for 35 years (which is a record for a touring musician) and every morning when they woke up together, they’d ask each other, “What’s the temperature, darling?” John Leventhal, Cash’s husband, songwriting partner (Cash-lyrics and Leventhal-music), guitarist, and musical director, told Cash that that was the first line to a song.
There was a song about Mobile (“Night School”), where she’s never been yet and one about Memphis – “50,000 Watts” is the tag line for the ad for a local radio station that, back when her father was in Memphis, played race music. BB King was a DJ for that station back then.
Much of this record was inspired by a road trip on Highway 61, driving from Tennessee to New Orleans, where Cash and Leventhal stopped to see the vortex of music and revolution – Robert Johnson’s grave, the grocery store where Emmett Till made his innocent fatal mistake, and the Tallahatchie Bridge.
There’s a song about her grandmother Carrie Cash (“The Sunken Lands”), a strong influence on Cash’s life. Leventhal and Cash’s first husband Rodney Crowell wrote a song for Emmylou Harris. When Cash asked to sing it, her husband told her no. When some time had passed and Emmylou still hadn’t recorded the song, Cash asked again and was told no again. Finally Cash asked Crowell to change the lyrics to be a song about the Civil War. Crowell agreed. Cash’s son was working on a Civil War project for school and Cash found a photo of one of her ancestors who fought in the war (her family fought on both sides). As soon as Cash started singing “When the Master Calls the Roll” I heard Emmylou’s voice loud and clear. Cash totally channeled Emmylou singing a melody that was made for her.
After intermission, Cash performed songs from The List, her covers album and other older tunes. She ended the set with “Seven Year Ache” probably the song that first brought her to everyone’s attention. It was funny to watch Cash change the set list (“It’s my prerogative”) and see the musicians trying to catch up.
Songs from The List included “Girl from the North Country” (Bob Dylan) and “I’m Movin’ On” (Hank Snow). A song she regularly performs is Bobbie Jo Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe.” She introduced the song by mentioning a bridge that loomed large and this was why, so I recognized right away what she was about to sing. Others didn’t recognize it until the intro. And still others when she began singing. There was this weird smattering of applause and cheering and then a section of the audience tried to clap along but they were all clapping on a different (wrong) beat and it was almost unbearable. This happened with at least one or two other songs.
For the encore Leventhal and Cash played a duet and then the full band came out for the last song. Cash did introduce the band – fiddle/mandolin, electric bass, slide, acoustic, and electric guitar, drums, percussion, and keyboards – but I didn’t write down their names. But they were a wonderful tight band and the few solos were also beautiful.
The percussionist didn’t play during the second set and I thought maybe he’d been fired but he showed up for the bow and the encore so I guess everything was okay. Strange that they couldn’t figure out stuff for him to do on the older songs.
Cash looked gorgeous in a black jacket with a few sequins, black jeans, and cowboy boots. It was the perfect stage outfit for her.
Cash quoted director Peter Brook about turning over an hourglass before the start of the show and the performer and audience feel every grain of sand as it slips down. Rosanne Cash felt it all. The band felt it all. And we, the audience, felt it all.
By Carene Lydia Lopez