Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz
efore they had even played a note, Rosanne Cash and Ry Cooder explained why they were there. Cash recalled she was in San Francisco in 2017 and 2018. "So, I called Ry and asked him to play....'We can do whatever we want,'" to which he responded, "Yes...You have to do Johnny."
Cash said, "It's the person I've been avoiding for 40 years. It's the right time...These are the songs of Johnny Cash reimagined."
And so it went for 1 ¾ hours with Cash and Cooder playing 16 songs in the catalogue of songs Cash wrote (well almost all anyway) and recorded, setting the stage with "Understand Your Man" and "Guess Things Happen That Way."
Cash and Cooder alternated vocals, sometimes within a song, but there was no doubt about who had the better voice. By far. Cash's delivery remains warm and sensitive. The songs may not necessarily be hers, but she sure made them her own. The mournful quality of "Long Black Veil," which Cash did not write, remained.
But when it came to songs like "I Walk the Line" and the closing song of the regular set, "Ring of Fire," Johnny was merely a stepping off point. Reimagined indeed. Both were slowed down. A lot. Yes, they were recognizable, but let's just say that "Ring of Fire" was a polar opposite to Social Distortion's punky, hyper speed take. The song was a particular tour de force with an extended jam as well.
As for Cooder, one suspects that you're not going to a concert to hear Cooder's vocals. They are passable, but limited in range.
His guitar playing, of course, was not. He was simply stellar throughout, sometimes trotting out his 1955 Fender Esquire, which happened to be played by one Luther Perkins, who was Johnny Cash's guitarist in The Tennessee Three.
Perkins recounted the story of finding out that the instrument was owned by John Carter Cash, Rosanne's half brother. Cooder gave a knowing glance to Rosanne as he told the story.
The pony-tailed cool cat told a few great yarns, including his connection with country. He grew up in California. "In the '50s, there was nothing going on, and I discovered this hillbilly radio station." He heard Webb Pierce and eventually one Johnny Cash.
"It was great," he said. "I told my parents I was sick and couldn't go to school."
Cooder may have been the mainstay on guitar, but he had to "contend" with John Leventhal as well, who generally was on acoustic, but tuned in such a way that it sounded like he, too, was playing electric. Leventhal (aka Rosanne's husband) has been long been part of her band, and he turned in many a fine run as well. Keeping it a family affair, Joaquin Cooder set the beat and played an occasional autoharp.
This wasn't an overly rehearsed show as Cash was quick to point out at one point. At lest several of those onstage, including Cash, Cooder and Leventhal, had sheet music. While perhaps not everything was played exactly as planned, that was not a bad thing either as it gave the night a freshness. Rosanne sometimes took a seat on the stage while Cooder sang, smiling and taking in the music as if she were a fan. It was easy to see why.
Fittingly, the group closed with the gospel song that Johnny used to conclude his concerts with - "I'll Fly Away." Yet another well-done song by Cash and Cooder on a show filled with them. Call this a great night of tribute by two superb musicians with a deep connection.