July 29, 2014
One reason why roots music speaks so loudly to so many souls is the way that it calls out to our sense of self. Nothing has real meaning or direction without a point of departure, a place of origin and time-fix that pinpoints the start of life’s journey. Sometimes, quite often in fact, that journey leads right back to place you started from, and you realize that it’s the travelling that matters more then the perceived destination. This is the story that Rosanne Cash shared with a rapt full house at Perth Concert Hall on Sunday night, as she looped her way around the Delta lands with intimate music, and an even more intimate lyrical narrative.
As a seasoned performer, she chose the obvious charm of Modern Blue to get an expectant, on-side audience settled in their seats. It’s a natural sounding songwriters song with an adult grasp of chorus and mature balance in its measured verse. It also gives a country twist to contemporary disaffection that tells us she’s an urbane, witty and observational woman. Relaxed in jeans and sleeveless knitted cardigan, they love her right away. “This is my motherland and I’m very happy to be here.” She announces without irony. We believe her. She’s one of us.
Much of the material she presents is from her most recent album The River and the Thread, but it’s evident early on that this is no promotional showcase. She’s here to relate in narrative and song lines the chapters in a songbook that delves into Cash family history, social change, economic realities and challenging landscapes. On The Sunken Lands, Cash the essayist introduces the song and merges seamlessly with Cash the songwriter as she articulates an absorbing litany of hardship in an unforgiving place. The conversational tone is set, and the evening takes on the feel of a book group discussion as she explores the depth of unspoken understanding on Ettas Tune, a heartfelt memoir of lifelong love. Speaking of which, Cash is accompanied on guitar and piano by husband of nineteen years John Leventhal. He’s a tall lean, grey-haired empath who picks a firm flat top and whispers gently in her ear. They are darlin’ companions, and we are no longer in the concert hall, but in their front room.
Cash, introducing The Feather’s Not a Bird, talks about travelling with Leventhal through the delta lands “going to different places in order to research this album” but its documentary credentials are already established. Still, it’s a pivotal song on the record and central plank for something really quite new; a literate roots-based music with a vocabulary to match expressive ethnicity. More importantly she has the storyteller’s persuasive gift of keeping you listening. She sings about the linear paths of life’s journey and the circularity of experience with authority and, more importantly, credibility.
Away from The River and the Thread she takes time here and there to visit one or two of the hundred songs that father Johnny Cash recommended to her, twenty of which she recorded on 2009’s The List. She and Leventhal breeze through I’m Movin On and Motherless Children where the tall guy’s guitar playing shines particularly brightly. Cash elegantly dons the oft-covered Long Black Veil, a murder ballad that pleads for a good narrator and is rewarded with Cash’s tender treatment of an utterly timeless melody. “That song sounds so Scottish to me…so brooding….like you do so well”, she teases. Then later, there’s Ode to Billie Joe, related as if we’re sitting across the kitchen table from her as she pieces the whole horrible tale together. Leventhal’s accompaniment is spare and lightly punctuates each carefully enunciated sentence. Cash is good; her vocal range is fully exploited and she’s getting better as the show goes on. The songs she chooses from Black Cadillac, to my mind, stand out with greater clarity in arrangements condensed to their point of creation around sparse instrumentation. Leventhal, the easy-going bespectacled rock in her life is guilty of some beautiful guitar, and he follows in her step as she peeks into one of her finest songs The World Unseen. There is also wonderful imagery to behold in Dreams Are Not My Home as she dwells upon “The note that hangs in the gilded hall, the clanging of my empty rooms.”
There are more subtle connections between the songs as she revisits September When It Comes a song from Rules of Travel that featured John Cash, and is here transposed by Leventhal to an engaging parlour piano setting. Returning to The River and the Thread there is the enervated 50000 Watts which refers to WDIA, the Memphis radio station of choice for the Sun artists who shaped contemporary rock n roots music. There are more historic musical connections made as she retells the story visiting Robert Johnson’s grave, in a place where the blues were born and almost a stone’s throw from Gentry’s Tallahatchie Bridge. The song she sings speaks to the shocking smallness of the geography and the intensity of life on Money Road. She is not afraid however to author a re-imagined family history placing antecedents in the context of a civil war ballad on When the Master Calls the Roll. On the record it features a full band and a small crowd choir of famous names. Here it’s stripped down but it’s not completely bare and loses nothing as a folk song rather than a hymnal.
If it all sounds a bit learned then don’t be misled. On Tennessee Flat Top Box she is almost coquettish while Leventhal hams it up on guitar. It comes across as a husband and wife in-joke in a Johnny and June moment of unconscious imitation. On Seven Year Ache and the second encore song Heartaches by the Number the jukebox credentials and rockabilly chops were a timely reminder that southern-born Rosanne Cash may now be a metropolitan woman, but she’s still a country girl in her warm heart and very generous soul.
Michael S. Clark
All Photographs by Gavin McLaughlin Photography