Three From the Vaults: Part Two – new old recordings from Bob Marley, Johnny Cash and the Grateful Dead
Review by Doug Heselgrave
The number of officially released ‘bootlegs’ by popular recording artists keeps on increasing exponentially as time goes by. With the rise of the Internet, musicians and record labels have finally realized that it’s virtually impossible to stem the tide and prevent this kind of recording from circulating, so they’ve thrown up their hands and joined in the fray by releasing great live shows and rarities on their own. While some fans may miss the excitement of hunting down concert recordings by their favourite artists and the grass roots vibe of tape trading, those without the resources and time to search for these bootlegs continue to benefit from these high quality releases. Sometimes, I miss the hiss and audience noise that mar some of my old bootlegs, but the clandestine thrill is more than made up for by the full spectrum stereo sound that these soundboard recordings offer.
Yesterday, I reviewed ‘Bob Marley and the Wailers Live Forever’which added a much needed perspective of his late career sound and ongoing legacy.
Today, I’ll take a closer look at that link.
Johnny Cash: The Bootleg Series Vol. 2 – From Memphis to Hollywood
I grew up listening to Johnny Cash, but like a lot of people of my generation somewhere along the way, I stopped listening to country music on the radio and started to pay more attention to rock. And, like a lot of people, I think I came back to Johnny Cash in a big way when Rick Rubin reminded the world of just how good his music could be. But, like Bob Dylan, as the years have passed, I’ve come to think that the Johnny Cash that Rick Rubin gave back to the world wasn’t exactly the Johnny Cash we grew up with – some would say Rubin’s Cash operated as a kind of shorthand, in for the kill, cartoonish broad strokes version (with captions for the darkness impaired) of a far more complex artist. This is in no way meant to cast aspersions on Rubin – for even his detractors must admit that he did more than anyone else to solidify the singer’s place in musical history by getting Cash to record songs that he knew would appeal to a younger audience who had missed out on his essential earlier music. If Rubin lead the way to a rediscovery of Cash’s larger body of work, Rubin did the singer a favour and we should all be thankful for that. We should also be thankful for sets like the newly minted Johnny Cash Bootleg Volume 2.
Before we go too much further, as you may have guessed, I am not a fan of all of Johnny Cash’s songs. Like the Grateful Dead, he threw a wide musical net, so it’s not surprising that some of his music doesn’t resonate with me. Much of his mainstream Christian work – that which doesn’t dip into the Great American hymnals or has the Devil, darkness and temptation removed – and some of his more patriotic songs (as a Canadian citizen) fails to touch me and often leaves me cold. Then, of course, there were the dreadful floundering albums of the mid seventies to mid-eighties (can we ever forget Johnny Cash singing in a chicken suit or hawking bank machines for Canada Trust) that are best forgotten. But, none of this is unusual for an artist who enjoyed such a long career and who recorded as often as Johnny Cash chose to.
What is unusual is how much work of a very high quality Cash produced that never really saw the light of day. After hearing so much of his music and having a collection that runs into dozens and dozens of albums, I was truly surprised to find a collection like this that – after all the plundering of his back catalogue that’s gone on – is worthy of owning and actually adds to an understanding of the man and his music.
When I heard Johnny Cash’s Bootleg Vol.1,”Personal Files” which comprised two CDs of acoustic music intended for his ears only, I began to appreciate how endearing, soulful and singular a vision of the world his music communicated. This latest offering doesn’t have quite the same revelatory quality as the initial set, but it is still a great collection of music that offers a significant amount of tracks that most fans won’t have heard before. While it has little that the hard core collector won’t have already acquired – the ten radio cuts from 1954 were featured in the ‘Legend’ box set that came out a few years ago, and the Sun singles have surfaced in many different configurations over the years – for my money there are a lot of great versions of songs that I had never heard before collected at a very reasonable price.
Personally speaking, the best reason to buy Bootleg Volume 2 is to have the chance to listen to the previously unreleased demos of early favourites such as ‘Walk the Line’, ‘Get Rhythm’, ‘Train of Love’ and ‘Big River’. Rough, ready, and sung straight from the heart, these songs from a young and hungry Johnny Cash represent the best of his early recorded work and I don’t think I’ll ever tire of listening to them.
The second CD in this compilation showcases a selection of hits and B sides from the sixties, and doesn’t hold nearly as much interest for me. Though many of the songs were new to my ears, the production values that were popular at the time marred so many of these otherwise fine compositions. If ever a set of songs cried out for a remastering such as Willie Nelson undertook with ‘Naked Willie’ a few years ago when he cut out all the backing vocals and strings from songs from the same period, it’s these ones. I’m sure that the original demos have a grace and power that is lacking from these slick recorded versions.
These small quibbles aside, ‘Johnny Cash: The Bootlegs Vol. 2 – From Memphis to Hollywood’ is a great, bargain priced release – even if you never listen any further than the crucial first disc of rough, rugged and perfect versions of his best early work. I have no idea how much of Johnny Cash’s music is still residing in a vault somewhere – after the ‘Unearthed’ and ‘Legend” box sets, it’s hard to imagine that there’s much left to plunder, but as long as Legacy keeps releasing more songs of this quality from everyone’s favourite salt of the earth singer, I’ll be around to listen. The music speaks for itself. Nothing more needs to be said.
next: The Grateful Dead
This posting also appears at www.restlessandreal.blogspot.com