Rosanne Cash – Castle Clinton (New York City, NY)
Her last album, 10 Song Demo, came out six years ago, and her live appearances since then have been few and far between. But for her published short-story collection and kids’ book, Rosanne Cash has largely been out of the spotlight lately, a quietly busy New York mother of three.
Some 600 curious, expectant fans turned out for this free hour-long show — fans she’d found in the 1980s with her powerful country-rock blend, and others she’d captured through the ’90s, with her pointed “adult alternative” songs of women’s lives. She revealed that she has a new record (Rules Of Travel) in the works for early next year; there were things to try out live with husband John Leventhal’s band, Mojo Mancini, behind her. (They also played an opening set, delivering sometimes sluggish, ironic yup-jazz turns on everything from “Here Comes The Spiderman” to West Side Story tunes to “Ring Of Fire.”)
One other fact colored this performance: “Last fall,” Cash noted, “I wouldn’t have even thought we could be here.”
The circular outdoor Castle Clinton site, entry point for immigrants to the United States before Ellis Island took its place, is set at the lower tip of Manhattan, just a few hundred yards from what’s left of the “Sphere” sculpture salvaged from the World Trade Center plaza, with the “Ground Zero” site just beyond.
Those were the circumstances.
Rosanne Cash returned ready, energetic, and sounding pretty much as she always has. Her affecting singing, comparable to that of Gram Parsons in tone and phrasing, has always been a triumph of commitment and smarts over volume. Backup singer Catherine Russell, who has a very similar range, sang with her through most tunes, adding size to the vocal attack, and sometimes close harmony. On a very rousing, rolling version of Cash’s 1980 hit “Seven Year Ache”, they were joined by another friend, Joan Osborne.
The set list cut across Cash’s career, opening with the rocker “Runaway Train” (still an unmitigated twang-rock great) and closing with “The Wheel”. The band (Leventhal on guitar, the others on organ and accordion, sax, bass and percussion) was very comfortable and effective with the rockers and ’90s alternative material (“What They Really Want”, “If I Were A Man”), some of which Leventhal had produced on record.
As the picker for her hit twangin’ take on pop Johnny Cash’s “Tennessee Flattop Box”, however, Leventhal was clearly uncomfortable, setting off some good-natured wifely shrugging. (“Well, he’s from New York!”)
Some of the new tunes stood out, among them “44 Stories”, a reminder to men not to take lightly “a woman on her knees;” and “Hope Against Hope”, a Dire Straits-like “better day coming” rocker by Jakob Dylan and Joe Henry.
The poignant location was addressed first in “September When It Comes”, Cash’s 1997 traditional-style ballad of darkened skies, death, loss of faith in religion, and new comfort in someone’s arms; the song appeared on the Celt/Bluegrass Transatlantic Sessions compilation. It was revisited in her first encore, a passionate version of Bob Dylan’s “License To Kill”. Evoking that “woman on my block” who questions the rationalizations for war, and adding some updated spin based on John Lennon’s “I don’t believe…” litany, it made for a stinging response both to Bin Laden, by name, and to anyone else from any side who would murder “in the name of God.”
Cash had one last, lighter, surprise in store for her final encore: a sweet, acoustic version of “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” from My Fair Lady. Loverly it was.