Many many years ago I went to see Rodney Crowell perform at the China Club and ran into my friend Jeff Nesin, who invited me backstage. Meeting Rodney there was nothing about him to rise the ire in any one really but I would have paid cash on the barrelhead to punch him in the nose.
Several years earlier, maybe 1982, 1983, I had interviewed Rosanne Cash for East Village Eye and it was the only time somebody has cried on me during a conversation for publication, but the world had caught up with her and despite having Somewhere In The Stars, produced by her husband Rodney, to push, the air of addiction and depression permeated the conversation. I threw out a potboiler question, one I often used back in the day, “Are you happy?” and her response was a torrent, “Things aren’t the way they seem,” she replied, “People look at me and they think I have everything but I don’t have everything at all…”
Something like that brings out the protective spirit in a guy and so I felt protective but so what? So I wanted to punch Crowell and so the thought returned somewhere during Rosanne’s set at the Town Hall on Tuesday evening. What I perhaps missed back then was the protectiveness wasn’t solely my awareness of her condition way back when, but tied to her vulnerable, moving sweetly aching voice wrapping vulnerability in strength -or something like that. She introduced the decidedly mediocre “The Long Way Home” by noting that you make many detours finding out who you aren’t and I had caught her in mid-detour.
Which is fortunate because I haven’t much liked anything Rosanne has recorded since 1990 when she relinquished her country scion superstar status for a moldy old introspective singer songwriter persona and over the years re imagined herself as an a rootsy American performer.
I’d only seen her maybe three times before, two of them with daddy Johnny Cash and once as part of a Christmas show, so this was really my first extended viewing and over and above the vulnerability, she brought a quick wit, a white girls dance, and too much willingness to let her band jam, along with her. Flanked by husband John Leventhal, who co-wrote all the songs, Rosanne performed all the songs on her latest album The River And The Thread, during the first half of the show, took a break, and returned with a hodgepodge of songs from all parts of her career.
Surprisingly, it was the first part of the evening that was the keeper. Needle had its moments for sure but it is the living breathing definition of clean, lo-high Americana culture, self-regard. Genealogy is Cash’s obsession as far as I can see, and really at 58 years old, it is time to stop stuffing her family down our throat. The woman might as well be Kerry Kennedy as she can’t stop herself from pretending her obsession is the deep South -where her roots lay, while her obsession is, as it has always been, her father.
Yup, Elektra is the patron saint of fathers and daughters and when your father is the legendary Johnny Cash it seems to overwhelm the storyline. Rosanne has never hidden from her family, indeed, she has embraced it, but she hasn’t thought it through either. Two of the songs Tuesday night were songs Johnny had performed in his career and he looms over the proceedings like a shadow neither Rosanne, nor Rodney or Leventhal, can come close to emerging from. The album itself started life as Rosanne worked to restore her father’s childhood home.
With that in mind, what the live performance of Needle -a trip deep down South, achieves is all subtext as text and tall stories as personal history. The opening “A Feather’s Not A Bird” and the penultimate song on the album “When The Master Calls The Roll” are both very fine indeed but a late night second half “Seven Year Ache” is rushed though why I am not sure, and the dreariest, slowest, longest “Ode To Billie Joe” imaginable was a low point the set didn’t recover from. The second set of the show was really not all that, it was a sort of middlebrow piece of personal pop history which didn’t honor the punchline of her career: that she never improved much on “Blue Moon With Heartache”. Dedicating the oldie to her daughter Carrie (“I was younger than Carrie is now when I wrote it”, Rosanne notes, enough of a mother to rub her daughters nose in it0) the song was the shining moment of the second set.
The first set was all of a piece and with co-writer John by her side, mediocre self servings were save by a tight seven piece band and while I myself found her a little predictable, she implied this one the first time the album been performed straight through, which it isn’t of course, still everything improved live amd her ode to WDIA Radio (where BB King got his start as a DJ) “50,000 Watts” simply flied past. And if nothing could save “The Sunken Lands”, “Money Road”, or “Tell Heaven”, simply by referring to “Night School” as one part Stephen Foster and one part Johnny Mercer, she rang a clear clear resonating bell that brought the song to life.
But really all this myth of the South bores the hell out of me, and all this fetish genealogy bores me more. I am not a fan but with a cracker band and a lot of charm, she pulled out the first set.
The second set really kinda sucked. The extended jams were embarrassing. If Rosanne can’t dance and won’t play, why is she giving the stage up to the band?
An over weaned “I’m Moving On” is a low point ,”Long Black Veil” really a drag, the very definition of middlebrow intensity, and “Ode to Billie Joe” painful in the extreme. She had nothing at all to add to “Girl From The North country” except maybe synchronicity, “Tennessee Flat Top Box” was like when you are holding your first ever big party and rushing around trying to convince people they’re having fun, and “Seven Year Ache” a completely blown opportunity.
It was terrible.
Yet, there is no fun in writing mean things about Rosanne. You kinda remember who she is, who her dad is, and I at least, am keenly aware of her humanity, that my zings hit someone I kinda like. Loved in the 80s before she got too serious for her own good. Rosanne introduces “The Master Calls The Roll” by noting her husband and her ex-husband co-wrote it so maybe it is just as well I didn’t punch Rodney in the nose. I mean, really, these Southerners are crazy and a new morning can become Elektra
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