Rosanne Cash Takes It To The Chapel
Call it luck. Call it serendipity, or if you’re that way inclined, planets aligning. I’ve seen some special double bills at the Union Chapel, but this one will take some beating. On the one hand, and acting as support of the evening, Dean Owens, a songwriter who I’ve given plenty of coverage to on Eye Level with the Stylus, and with good reason; this is a man who deserves a (much) wider audience. On the other, the bloodline of a legendary music family that can trace roots on various sides of the songwriting line, via her father the Man in Black, his beloved June Carter and back through her line to Mother Maybelle Carter. Both will do their reputations justice tonight; whilst Dean will more than take his opportunity at a sold out Chapel, Rosanne Cash will add another chapter to her own incredible story. It was also another vindication of the influence of her husband, producer and all round guiding hand John Leventhal. Make no mistake, this is Rosanne’s show but some of the strings would run slack without Leventhal to pull them.
Cash and Leventhal were in the UK twice last year. Supported by a full band they lit up the dreary Barbican in April, combining a full replay of The River And The Thread with a second set of older songs. She was a highlight at last year’s Cambridge Folk Festival, one of a trio of American artists (with Jason Isbell and Sarah Jarosz) who all but stole the festival weekend from under the native artist’s noses. Tonight is the Barbican evening in microcosm. It’s just her and Leventhal, and the music is mixed, but the spirit and the legacy that runs through her songs comes alive from the start and rarely lets go until the end.
‘Modern Blue’ is a lively opener. Cash defers to Leventhal’s rhythm and he adds the necessary curlicues and accents that fill out the two guitar sound. It allows Cash the space to emote, something that famous voice does with pinpoint accuracy through ‘The Sunken Lands’, the brilliant ‘Etta’s Tune’ and the title track of her latest album. ‘Dreams Are Not My Home’ is sublime, as is Hank Snow’s ‘I’m Movin’ On’. It’s the first of seven covers, some staples of her set due to their inclusion on The List, some fan favourites but only rarely performed.
As both Cash and Leventhal relax, the latter’s influence looms large. It looks like a normal six-string, but Leventhal coaxes delta blues, country, pop and hybrids of all three from his guitar. He communicates with Cash both in subtle glances and overt smiles, delivering ever more florid and inventive song endings for her sport and our amusement.
‘Blue Moon With Heartache’ is a nice surprise and ‘Ode To Billie Joe‘s’ haunting balladry is as effective, possibly more so, with just the two of them on stage. The standout is ‘When The Master Calls The Roll’. In the studio, Cash and Leventhal called upon a who’s who backing line including Kris Kristofferson and Cash’s former husband Rodney Crowell to add breathy bass notes to the chorus, but here her historical story entwining love and honour is full of space, lyrics like ‘It’s a love of one true heart at last / That made the boy a hero / But a rifle ball and a cannon blast / Cut him down to zero‘ hitting the heart and the jugular simultaneuously. A rare outing for ‘The Way We Make A Broken Heart’ is prompted by some gentle persuasion by Leventhal after a raft of requests from the crowd are largely turned down, some with a flat ‘no!’, others for fear the lyrics may escape her. Her father’s ‘Tennessee Flat Top Box’ and a special ‘500 Miles’ make up for any disappointment the crowd may feel at not hearing their own special choices.
As encores go, ‘Seven Year Ache’ is a nice touch, and Cash brings us full circle by closing with ‘Money Road’. It’s an opportunity to tie up the journey they took when writing The River… and re-assert the litany of famous places and names associated with this mysterious land that has such a hold on musical history; the Tallahatchie Bridge, Bryant’s Grocery, Money Mississippi and Robert Johnson’s crossroads. It’s a legacy that deserves a special curator, and I can’t think of anyone better placed to deliver it than Rosanne Cash right now.
What started as a personal journey of remembrance and discovery has turned into a landmark project the equal of Guthrie’s Folkway recordings and Johnny’s Folsom Prison album, works that in time eclipse their original purpose to become something more than just music, that turn into milestones along the journey. Combine that with a back catalogue of hits and a seasoned performance ethic and it’s a show not to be missed.