I first heard Rosanne Cash years ago, on a video recording of a show from sometime in the 1990s, featuring Cash with country/folk peers Nanci Griffith and Mary Chapin Carpenter. The three songwriters were sitting around in a semi-circle, each with a guitar, a microphone and a stash of songs that veered between the heartbreaking and the hilarious. No backing band, no light show, just pure voices and strange stories.
Tonight was the first time I’d attended one of Cash’s shows and she proved that her voice, playing and songs now have even more extraordinary power to enchant. If I arrived intrigued, I definitely left impressed and inspired.
Cash was touring her multi-Grammy-winning album The River And The Thread, which was released last year. She and her husband, John Leventhal, took to the stage of Union Chapel for a set heavily drawn from the new album, with songs including World Of Strange Design, The Long Way Home and A Feather’s Not A Bird.
The clear, magnetic songs steeped in folk, country and blues swept over the congregation. The arrangements were tight and note perfect in delivery, yet the couple seemed relaxed and to be enjoying the evening as much as the crowd.
Cash delighted the audience with tales of the songs’ histories. Dreams Are Not My Home was written “down the road in Cambridge” we learned and When The Master Calls, she revealed, was co-written by her husband and her ex. When this latter fact garnered no reaction, she looked out at the pews and laughed, saying “Oh, that’s normal here, is it?”.
Older numbers including Blue Moon With Heartache, Seven Year Ache and her father’s Tennessee Flat Top Box inspired hearty applause.
Cash engaged in some playful banter with Leventhal, admitting she wished she didn’t have to sing one particular song, so she could just listen to his guitar playing. “It’s hard to keep up with you sometimes,” she said. “It’s hard to keep up with myself,” he quipped back.
The stand out tracks of the evening, for me, were two covers. One was the tearful, lonely folk classic 500 Miles, which she recorded for her album The List in 2009 (taken from a list Johnny Cash gave her of essential country songs). The other was a hypnotic version of Bobby Gentry’s late 60s mystery tale of suicide and family life, Ode To Bille Joe.
Towards the end of the night, Cash said: “This is one of my favourite venues to play in the world and you’re one of my favourite audiences.” I strongly suspect most people present would say the sentiment was mutual.
With an encore of Money Road from the new album, Cash left the stage and I took the evening’s swirling melting pot of stories, ideas and melodies away with me. Some shows are more than a collection of songs or an hour or two of entertainment, but rather transport you to other places and states of mind and bring you back, feeling enriched for the experience. This was one of those nights.
Photographs and review by Imelda Michalczyk. Imelda has her own great website here: http://www.rebeladelica.com