Saturday night my 15 year old son Patric and I saw Rosanne Cash in Akron.
I had heard that she was going to be in town, but assumed the cost of tickets would be prohibitive. Then I read in the weekend section of the newspaper that tickets were only $10; apparently the city and local businesses subsidized the show.
I wasn’t sure Patric, a talented guitarist, would want to go; he is a rock and roll kind of guy with a distaste for all things Country. While I like a lot of what could be called country, my tastes run from the traditional to the bohemian, and I share his dislike of contemporary commercial country music. While Rosanne Cash’s music is highly eclectic, her roots are obviously country. I put in 1990’s Interiors album and asked if he wanted to go. He liked it and said yes.
So after a quick shower when I got home from work we hopped in the car and drove the half hour to Akron. The show was at Lock 3 park, a green expanse in the heart of the city. We bought tickets, then grabbed a bite to eat at a deli, then returned to the amphitheatre. The opening act began at 7, a local country band. The first couple of tunes were tolerable, but it headed steadily downhill. The group featured a woman lead singer, who pranced around the stage constantly and annoyingly. It was not that she had a bad voice, she just made some bad decisions. Not least of these was an attempt to cover Adelle’s Floating in the Deep, a work of such Platonic perfection that I was amazed that anyone thought it a good idea to try and sing it. The only thing she inspired was a new appreciation of Adelle. But it got worse; there was a song that managed to combine two of my least favorite genres and could only be called heavy metal country boogie. And the low point of the performance was the musical hell of a country version of a Madonna song. Patric was truly suffering.
They played for a full hour and a half, and when they finally finished there was a gap of a half hour or so as the roadies set the stage for Ms Cash. We milled around and moved our folding cloth chairs closer to the front, maybe 30 feet from the stage.
Rosanne Cash took the stage around 9 o’clock, and from the opening notes we were entranced. Her music is very guitar centered, and unlike most bands she did not have a lead and a rhythm guitarist, but two musicians who played off one another. One was her husband, John Levanthal, a lean sixtiesh man. The other was a skinny kid who looked like he was 18, who also played the steel guitar. The band was incredible and very tight. Patric was impressed.
She played a lot of songs from her recent album The List, which refers to the list of 100 country songs her father gave her when she was 18, saying “This is your education.”
Rosanne Cash, besides being a gifted songwriter, is a masterful interpreter of other people’s songs. Some of these covers involve distilling the very essence of a song, like the stripped-down version of Bobby Gentry’s Ode to Billy Joe, which she sang accompanied by a solo acoustic guitar. She wrang more soul out of that tune than Ms Gentry ever was capable of doing.
Other interpretations transfigured the originals, finding hidden potential in them (think Hendrix covering Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower). She did this with one of her father’s songs, Tennessee Flattop Box. Johnny Cash’s version of the song, which is about a young guitar whiz, featured extensive acoustic flatpicking. Rendered by Rosanne and her band, the two guitarists, one on acoustic, the other on an electric Telecaster, played off one another, escalating into a dazzling crescendo of guitar virtuosity. Even though it was more “country” than a lot of her material, Patric was blown away. I don’t think I have ever seen better guitar playing, with the sole exception of the time in the late 70s when I saw Phil Keaggy take the stage with only a Les Paul, with which he proceeded to create a transcendent tapestry of sound.
All in all, an amazing evening. My only regret is that she didn’t play anything from Interiors. I guess if you have a career spanning more than 30 years you can’t do everything. And again, it may be too painful; that album chronicled the breakup of her marriage to Rodney Crowell. Still, I sure would have liked to have heard this, my favorite from that album: