Inside Sage Gateshead’s cavernous Hall One, the reverential silence of the audience was only interrupted by rounds of enthusiastic applause, ripples of appreciative laughter and a justly deserved standing ovation. Rosanne Cash and John Leventhal’s performance at the Summertyne Americana Festival, (celebrating its 10th Anniversary this year), was captivating. Cash’s talents as a songwriter and vocalist were given real room to shine in an autobiographical set that stretched back over her career, exploring her roots in the music of the American South. It is worth noting that Rosanne Cash was not just accompanied by her husband, John Leventhal, on guitar; he deservedly shared the bill. “My band: John Leventhal,” quipped Cash at one point, without the faintest trace of hyperbole.
The duo kicked off with Modern Blue, a track from Cash’s most recent, (triple-Grammy award winning), album: The River & The Thread and went on to play the majority of the tracks from it. In the interludes between these songs, accompanied by Leventhal, Cash gave lyrical explanations of the origins to her songs. This gave parts of the gig the feel of a spoken-word travelogue. Far from detracting from the music, these interludes enhanced the power of her storytelling, gave insight into her writing process and tied the set together conceptually. All the songs from this album were either inspired by recent trips through the delta with her husband or drawn from the annals of Cash family history. “The music from the delta is part of my bloodstream” explained Cash.
Modern Blue was followed by Sunken Lands, the story of how Cash’s grandma first settled in the hard land of rural Arkansas. Etta’s Tune, we learnt, was written about Etta Grant who was married for 65 years to Tennessee Two bassist Marshall Grant, (“which must be some kinda record for a touring musician!”) Double-Grammy award winning song A Feather’s Not a Bird got one of the best receptions of the night. It was positively brimming with swampy blues atmosphere, evoking the sticky humidity that precedes an incoming rainstorm.
Long Way Home closed this opening section of songs and was one of the highlights. The simplicity of the repeating riff and lyrics, when combined with the clarity of Cash’s voice, was compelling. Cash began the song by suggesting that “home is more than a place on a map,” telling us that, for southern people, the American South is something that you take with you wherever you go. Having spent her early career forging her own distinct path, you get the feeling that Roseanne Cash has been drawn, almost inevitably, back to the music of her roots. The lyrics of Long Way Home are an almost literal representation of that journey.
Launching into Dreams Are Not My Home, the performance morphed briefly into an acoustic rock gig. “That was some real folk rocking right there,” remarked Leventhal. 1981 hit Blue Moon With Heartache, we heard, is a song she: loved, grew to hate, broke up with, reconciled with and finally married. Going on to play a number of covers, (including several from previous album The List), Cash really swung on Hank Snow’s I’m Movin’ On, John Leventhal revelling in the 12-bar blues. Very quiet foot-tapping could just about be discerned in the quietude of Hall One. Cash originally recorded Don Gibson’s Sea of Heartbreak as a duet with Bruce Springsteen, the mention of Springsteen’s name prompting a “woo!” from the crowd. “Is he here?” Cash shot back. “Well I guess it will once again fall to John Leventhal…” Request, Girl From North Country was given an original treatment and Johnny Cash cover Tennessee Flat Top Box was a good showcase for Leventhal’s intricate playing. Country standard, Long Black Veil and Carter Family covers Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone and Bury Me Under The Weeping Willow didn’t resonate quite as much as the other covers or original material but were enjoyable nonetheless.
A sultry version of Ode to Billy Joe prompted a story about visiting the Tallahatchie Bridge in question and provided the platform for two more songs from The River & the Thread. 50,000 Watts, sounding more late 60s Californian Folk-Rock than Southern roots with its bright guitars and harmonies, was written about WDIA Radio in Memphis, a ‘race music’ station where a certain Riley B. King made his name and which greatly influenced Johnny Cash and his contemporaries. When The Master Calls The Roll was originally written by Leventhal and Cash’s ex-husband Rodney Crowell for Emmy Lou Harris. Inspired by a chanced-upon photo of Cash’s civil war soldier ancestor, it was set to new lyrics and transformed into a quiet and poignant “Celtic ballad.” It was followed with a rapturous applause.
The set closed with well-known hit 7 Year Ache, performed as a rousing acoustic rocker and prompting a standing ovation. Encores came in the form of the delicate The Western Wall, (with Leventhal on piano this time) and another old hit in I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me.
John Leventhal’s virtuoso playing was utterly transfixing throughout the set; he moved all over the fret board, full of blues soloing and percussive rhythm. There was a memorable moment at the end of Ode to Billy Joe when Leventhal tuned his top string right down, letting it reverberate to produce a really ominous closing note. However, this dazzling box of tricks never threatened to overshadow Rosanne Cash. Rather, Leventhal’s sympathetic playing enhanced the sticky southern mood of the new songs and gave a fresh perspective to her old hits. The two meshed together well, swelling to fill the hall before gently falling away again. The delta groove, witty stage patter and tales of the South combined to produce a thoroughly engrossing performance. Rosanne Cash demonstrated just how important the aural traditions inherent in folk and roots music still are to modern song writing. She can certainly count herself part of that ongoing continuum of music with its roots planted firmly in the soil of the American South.
Review by: Mark Roberts