Johnny Cash / Mark Lanegan – Rose Gardens (Portland, OR)
Rosy-fingered dusk tripped slowly down green terrace steps, folding chairs, sculpted roses, and halfway through Mark Lanegan’s second solo show settled an indirect glow across the stage. All in the time it took Lanegan to work through a half-dozen songs from his two solo albums and Willie Nelson’s “She’s Not For You”, recorded a day earlier for a compilation.
Accompanied by J. Mascis and Mike Johnson of Dinosaur Jr. (acoustic guitars), Dave Krueger (fiddle), Screaming Trees drummer Barrett Martin (upright bass) and Mudhoney’s Dan Peters (drums), Lanegan’s sad, solitary songs were warmly received by those enjoying a rare solo outing from the lead singer of the Screaming Trees. He left the stage promptly enough to satisfy those expecting a different kind of show.
Still, the faint shadows were not deep enough to sustain Lanegan’s songs. His gift is his splendid, deep, resonant voice, best used to express the reticent self-examination of late nights and soiled bottles. Country music fosters a warmth between performer and audience at odds with Lanegan’s experience in the world of punk rock, and in the world at large. What was meant as unflinching honesty played to the uninitiated as monochromatic coldness. But the songs, the music, and the backing band were beautiful, a dry rose metaphorically left on stage for The Man In Black.
Early on, Johnny Cash offered wry appreciation for his recent Grammy, in the category of “contemporary folk.” The lesson, though, that great music resists labels — and this should have been obvious in a set that went back to the Carter Family’s origins in the ’20s, through John Prine (whose “Mulenberg County” John Carter Cash offered during his turn in the spotlight), and into the present — was scarcely heard.
Even at 63, Cash’s voice is a rare jewel, and if his two-hour show is largely a set-piece of treasured memories, they gleam no less brightly for frequent polishing. He is a big man still, elegant gray hair swept back, sturdy on stage, yet gracious and curiously soft. If the measure of an artist is his ability to endure, and to continue exploring his craft (and it is), Cash deserves the same honor bestowed upon Neil Young and Alejandro Escovedo.
The evening took graceful turns through early Sun rockabilly, classic country, gospel, and a short set with the black guitar, just Cash, that spectacularly resonant sound that comes from somewhere in his upper chest, and a few fresh songs. Songs like “Drive On,” a somewhat dodgy Vietnam vet piece from American Recordings, gathered poignance in the sincere, steel timbre of live delivery.
Rather than the color of his wardrobe, Cash now leaves behind a pink smile and takes evident joy in well-worn songs, in the obligatory duet with June Carter Cash — “Jackson” takes on a different resonance with June’s voice no longer girlish and sweet, but rougher and woman-worn — and hokum banter with his drummer. At this spot on his long road, Cash seems utterly at peace and completely engaged in the process of creation, still investigating new melodic possibilities in old songs. And, perhaps, invigorated by his Seattle recording session, recording Willie Nelson’s “The Time of the Preacher” with Kim Thayil, Krist Novoselic, Sean Kinney, and his son, John Carter Cash.