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Serious in song, Cash sends fans home smiling

Musco Center for the Arts, Orange, Cal., February 16, 2023

Reviewed by Dan MacIntosh

It was appropriate for Rosanne Cash to perform at this Chapman College arts center, as she is such an intelligent and literate songwriter. In fact, she also spent time with some of the school's students prior to her performance, discussing the art of writing. But tonight, it was all about Cash's writing and songs, and she presented a wide-ranging set, which touched upon many intriguing periods of her career.

The night's biggest surprise arrived when Cash performed two songs from "Norma Rae," a Broadway musical for which she's been writing songs. With these ("Hurricane," "Shape of My Heart"), she gets inside the thoughts and motivations of this '70s female union organizer. Cash also sang songs from the list of 100 songs she was required to know about (from the list of songs given her by her late father, Johnny). These included the murder ballad, "Long Back Veil," the brokenhearted "Sea of Heartbreak" and the leaving song, "I'm Movin' On."

Cash was accompanied by her husband and musical partner, John Leventhal. He had a bit of laryngitis tonight, but he more than made up for the limited singing with some wonderful acoustic guitar and piano work. With just two acoustic musicians, the show felt warm and intimate. Cash took time to introduce every song, which gave her lyrics added and much-appreciated context.

Most Cash songs are deeply personal and none more so than "The Sunken Lands," which salutes her grandmother's difficult life in rural Arkansas. Cash may be known as a cosmopolitan contemporary singer/songwriter, but she cannot and will not forget her Southern roots. Even when those roots lead to dark places, which she explored with "The Killing Fields," a gripping lyric about the South's shameful history of lynching its black citizens.

Rosanne Cash jokingly introduced her encore of Johnny Cash's "Tennessee Flat Top Box" as a song that's not about death. After all, a lot of her songs address issues of life and death and are oftentimes quite serious. This one, though, was fun and upbeat, and sent the audience home smiling. However, this final joyous moment represented only one of many emotions felt during this rewarding, nearly two-hour concert experience.

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