Musing in my seat after the show at the resplendent Boch Center in Boston, the audience gone, the glamor stripped, with the stage curtains up exposing the backstage beams, concrete walls, pipes, wires and metalwork of this historic theater, I was musing about J.R. Cash.
Eyeing the musical instrument cases on wheels, I thought about the thousands and thousands of gigs he did over 55 years - pre-fame, as a success and a has-been, on the comeback trail and as an icon - crisscrossing the highways and byways of America to reach the people with his own powerful gospel. About how he picked cotton in Arkansas as the son of a sharecropper and how he improbably became the world famous Man In Black… who never forgot his past:
I wear black for the poor and beaten down Living In the hopeless, hungry side of town I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime But is there because he is a victim of the times.
Johnny Cash’s daughter, Roseanne Cash, a heralded singer-songwriter in her own right, and Ry Cooder, national treasure and guitarist extraordinaire, supported by a deft quartet, had just masterfully interpreted a long set of 16 compositions written or made famous by Cash.
With an apologetic smile, Roseanne had issued a caveat implying that they were under rehearsed - to use her words: “There are a lot of moving parts here.” Cooder, a virtuoso, held up Luther Perkins’ 1955 blonde Esquire guitar, the very one on which he had played the iconic leads in many of Cash’s early hits. He explained that, while Perkins was limited, what he played was brilliant but, nevertheless, difficult to emulate.
Note for note musical perfection is no guarantee of a satisfying show - for the musicians or the audience. To prove that, their misgivings, as it turned out, were 200% unnecessary. You could see how humbled they were by the raucous audience approval, the hoots and hollers after they offered chestnuts like Hey, Porter and I Still Miss Someone. The august Cooder even doffed his wide-brimmed white hat in appreciation, moved by the sustained applause.
As heartfelt and innovatively refashioned as the songs were, their storytelling complemented the music dramatically. Cash, who provides incisive commentary on Ken Burns’ highly recommended documentary series Country Music, was sober but emotional in revealing both the evolution of the project and insights into Cash family history. She had been grappling for decades with the inevitable: doing a show of Daddy’s songs. Now she had the resource, the ace Cooder, to accomplish the mission.
As John Leaventhal, Cash’s husband and the band’s arranger and guitarist, theorized: “Ry was the right person for the right reason in the right place.” Of course, he was. Hearing Cash’s Get Rhythm on the radio at eight-years-old (when he had already been playing guitar for five years) astonished the little boy. The song emboldened him to relentlessly immerse himself in guitar music, only to evolve into inarguably one of the world’s best and most versatile pickers.
Furthermore, decades later he had entitled his 1987 release - what else? - Get Rhythm, as a tribute to his hero. So, some things are just meant to be. Cooder was really the best and only choice for this monumental task.
As for his prowess as a raconteur, Ry is sly and wry. Although he is from L.A., he has an ‘Aw shucks’ folksy storytelling style, the content of which is often hilariously simple, as well as simply hilarious. Some entertainers don’t say a word - Van Morrison, for example. Some of Cooder’s stories were as long as songs. Never mind, they were pure gold and rib-tickling. Only Arlo Guthrie rivals Cooder in the den of intersong dialogue.
To wit, he and longtime musical ally David Lindley were in a small trailer at a music festival when a long white stretch limo incongruously pulled up on this dirt road. Out stepped Johnny Cash who knocked on the door. When Cooder addressed what could only be an apparition (It couldn’t be him!) at the front door, he replied - and Cooder’s imitation was priceless - “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.” Cooder stared back at Lindley, whose fork was frozen inches from his mouth.
“Yes, of course, you are,” Cooder said.
“Well, I just want to thank you for recording my song,” Cash said, turned around, got back in the limo and left. Lindsey’s fork had remained frozen in the exact same position the whole time.
Like Johnny Cash, Cooder is a populist and reporter of injustice. Listen to the albums Chávez Ravine and Election Special for proof that he likewise is a true patriot and man of the people.
Joachim Cooder played drums, Mark Fain bass, Glenn Patscha piano and Leventhal guitar and arranged the imaginative renditions. Their version of Ring of Fire was a hypnotizing psychedelic sinuous swamp romp through the spheres. A killer! And they softened I Walk The Line into a sumptuous lullaby. They sang solo, they harmonized, they rocked, they strolled.
They murdered it!
Somewhere The Man in Black was smiling proudly.
For an encore they performed the redoubtable singalong I’ll Fly Away because Papa John, divulged his dutiful daughter, promised his mother he would always end his shows with a gospel tune. In fact, it was an appropriate and satisfying denouement to a cherished evening.
Daughter Rosanne Cash, spiritual protege Ry Cooder and their nimble quartet sent 4,000 sated people into the misty night happy and humming.