Rosanne Cash – The Barbican (London, U.K. – April 30th 2014)
“That was bloody marvelous Rosanne,” shouted a fan from the rear of the auditorium after she’d performed a spine-tingling cover of “Ode to Billie Joe”. That compliment was a perfect summation of the whole evening.
Cash and her finely tuned five-piece band, led by musical director (and husband) John Leventhal, took a brave but extremely well-received decision to play the whole of the new album The River and the Thread in sequence, for the first set of the show. She said that she’d always wanted to do this ever since seeing Lou Reed play an album’s tracks in succession at Radio City Music Hall. (I think that must have been Magic and Loss in 1992).
Cash’s latest release has been critically acclaimed with many believing that The River and The Thread is her best ever collection of songs. In writing the album’s material she and Leventhal traveled to the dark, mystical American South, exploring the Mississippi Delta and, in the process, wrote and arranged songs encompassing country, blues, gospel, and folk. The underlying tone is more than a little influenced by the inherently Southern writing of William Faulkner.
The only exception to the co-writing is the Civil War ballad “When the Master Calls The Roll”, to which her ex-husband Rodney Crowell also contributed. Apparently, Leventhal and Crowell had originally written a song for Emmylou Harris and wouldn’t give it to Cash until Harris had finally decided she was not going to record it. Cash grabbed the melody and rewrote the lyrics in conjunction with Crowell, drawing inspiration from the exploration of her family’s roots and involvement in the conflict between the Yankees and Confederates.
It was stories like this that gave additional texture to the songs. She explained the provenance of each song and a backdrop featuring a seamless slide show depicting photographs associated with the songs, which added further layers. The images were subtle, elegant and tasteful.
The first set garnered a standing ovation and it was difficult to imagine how it could be topped.
Coming out for the second set, she opened with “Radio Operator”, then set the tone for a more upbeat selection which included a stomping version of her father’s “Tennessee Flat Top Box”. This ended with a long instrumental where we witnessed Leventhal and Marc Copley duel it out with their respective guitars.
At one point, somebody shouted out a request for Johnny Cash’s “Walk The Line”, to which she replied “Do you go to the office and do your Dad’s work?” She lightened the retort by blowing a kiss to the person who requested it. If she’s in any way burdened by her father’s legacy, she shouldn’t be, as she is a consummate artist in her own right. Almost as if to prove the point she sang “Blue Moon With Heartache” which had been a No.1 hit for her at the tender age of twenty-three. She admitted that she hadn’t known what to do with that at the time and is now much more comfortable with the fruits of her success.
“Biloxi”, a tribute to the recently departed Jesse Winchester, was a thoughtful touch. “Seven Year Ache” ended the set, although she and Leventhal returned for a duet on “Western Wall” before the band joined them for the finale – a rockin’ version of “Motherless Children”.
So, with the first set taking us on a trip to the South and the second on a trip to the past, Cash – on her 19th wedding anniversary – had judged it perfectly. The London audience were as one in their appreciation, rising again to their feet in a rapturous standing ovation.
Photo credit: Richard Webb 2014