24 April 2015

Rosanne Cash in Concert

Rosanne Cash & John Leventhal

Thursday, 23 April 2015
Kentucky Country Day School

I learned about this concert a month ago; I believe it was through a BandsInTown email, but I could be wrong about that. I had spent the night with a friend and when I woke up, I decided I was going to buy a ticket. With my health, that's a game of roulette and it can be costly, which is why I quit going to concerts entirely several years ago. But after bantering with Cash via Twitter the last few years and coming to form a familiar perception of her separate from her identity as a famous entertainer. She's been encouraging during times of depression and I can always count on her to tweet #CrohnsSucks on my birthday (it's gonna trend one of these years, dammit!). It was in this somewhat personalized context that I felt that I needed to go see her perform. Kind of like if your online pal was in a band and came to town, except your pal is a bona fide superstar, if you'll excuse the unintended arrogance of that characterization.

Plus, there was The River & the Thread, her most recent (and Grammy-winning) album. I played it the day it came out last January and it instantly resonated with me like no album since Chely Wright's Lifted Off the Ground in 2010. You can read the entirety of my reaction here. The prospect of hearing even just a few of its songs performed live was irresistible.

When your pal is in a band and comes to town having created a true masterpiece of art - and I hesitate to use that phrasing only because of how commonly it's ascribed to undeserving works - you have to go. My physical self threatened to ruin the whole thing; I spent the entire day in bed, achy and exhausted from a rough Crohn's night. Thankfully, though, I rallied a few hours before showtime. Remind me to thank my doctor when I see her in a couple of weeks.

I'd never been to the Kentucky Country Day School, though I've shopped across the street from it for years at The Paddocks (formerly The Summit). I was just there a few weeks ago with my brother, as a matter of fact, to grab some Qdoba and we wound up sitting two tables away from my aforementioned doctor. It's a small world. Speaking of which, I couldn't help but to think of how we were there to hear Rosanne Cash sing songs about the Southern culture, shaped as much by geography and weather as by human choices, in a venue adjacent to a roadway decimated a few weeks ago by a washout:

Photo: +WAVE3
Anyway, the KCDS theater is what's commonly referred to as "intimate", meaning it's tiny but nice. I had been able to select my specific seat when I bought my ticket, and I snagged Row E, Seat 116 - the aisle seat in the fifth row! I had a spectacular view, though I suspect even those in the very back corner left satisfied with their vantage point.

I didn't take any pictures during the show, because I didn't want to be disruptive. *side eyes a few others in the crowd*
Because of the scale of the venue, Cash performed without her touring band. Instead, it was just her and John Leventhal, her husband/producer/co-writer and their guitars. Y'all, John Leventhal is a hell of a guitarist. I knew that by reputation, but actually watching and hearing him play was damn near revelatory. I was mesmerized at times by the sounds he created with just that single instrument. I have no doubt that the touring band members are all terrific, but I didn't miss them tonight. There was no feeling that this was an abridgment of the "real" show; this was every bit as complete as it should have been. Let's put it this way: I was so impressed by Leventhal's musicianship and stage presence that I can pull for the Mets now in any game that doesn't involve or affect the Reds. That's high praise.

The set consisted of seventeen songs, nine of them from The River & the Thread, which thrilled me. Each song was introduced - not merely prefaced - by Cash with its genesis and the context from which the song emerged. These introductions could have been perfunctory, even intrusive, but this was Rosanne Cash, so instead Cash-as-Narrator came to hold as much sway over the evening as Cash-as-Musician. I would be surprised at this point if she could even perform just one of these songs without including its overview, and to be honest, I kinda wish there was an edition of the album that included these interludes.

My favorite song on The River & the Thread is probably "Etta's Tune", and it was delightful to hear her perform that tonight. I will confess that "When the Master Calls the Roll" hit me unexpectedly and I was actually misty-eyed by its conclusion. That was followed by "Money Road" and "Ode to Billie Joe", and that entire passage of the show made me think of various friends of mine I wish had been there to share the experience. I don't quite know why I only thought of anyone else at that point in the show, but I felt awfully lonesome until the joyous "Tennessee Flat Top Box" relieved the melancholy.

I've seen my share of performers over the years, including some stand-up comedians such as Jerry Seinfeld and Steven Wright, and I have never seen anything quite like the easygoing poise that Rosanne Cash displayed on stage, alternating between her dual roles as narrator and musician for nearly two full hours. I don't know how mindful anyone else in the audience may have been about that aspect, but I left the auditorium in genuine awe...though I'm also admittedly biased. She's my online pal, after all, and I'm thrilled she came to town.

Oh, and a special shout-out to her tour manager, Danny Kahn, whom I met at the merchandise table. He very kindly procured for me a copy of the night's set list, though there were a couple of tweaks made during the show from what was printed. I've posted the accurate list, including two encore songs, to setlist.fm here. (Don't go pestering him at shows, though; I only want to acknowledge his generosity, not put a target on his back!)

See? Told you we were pals.

03 April 2015

"Beauty Is..." Ray Price - The Final Sessions

Ray Price
Beauty Is... The Final Sessions
Produced by Fred Foster
Album Release: 15 April 2014

Ray Price once defended his adoption of lush strings in his music by saying he didn't know that country singers weren't good enough to use them. He'd watched for too long as pop and rock artists raided country music for songs and had bigger hits with them than their originators, and so he felt that meant he - and any other interested country performer - could likewise take from pop and rock what suited them. (I suppose if we follow this line of thinking far enough, Ray Price is to blame for the mediocre pop and rock music that's marketed as contemporary country music, but that's a whole 'nother matter.)

It's fitting, then, that for his final album Price should have insisted on bringing in strings to sweep us through this punctuation on his illustrious career. Those who know me know that I tend not to be all that into this aesthetic, in part because I think I'm accustomed to strings used in film scores, all too often clumsily intruding on emotional scenes by shouting at us, "THIS IS AN EMOTIONAL MOMENT! FEEL EMOTION!"

Here, though, the strings service the art. If these same songs had been performed in stripped-down, acoustic arrangements a la Johnny Cash's famed American Recordings series, this might even be too morose to play all the way through. The strings work here largely because their purpose is to carry us through the album, rather than to make sure we fixate on specific moments. They also help to supplement Price's vocals - still commanding, though for the only time in his career are there signs of his powers diminishing. It took being 87 years old and dying of pancreatic cancer to blemish Ray Price's singing voice.

What of the songs themselves, though? This is one of those instances where an album is more than a collection of songs. I suppose "Beauty Is in the Eye of the Beholder" could be extracted from the album and stand solidly on its own. Price's duet with Martina McBride on "An Affair to Remember" (from the 1957 film) is a wonderful celebration of romantic storytelling. But for the most part, Beauty Is... was crafted as an album and needs to be heard in its entirety as such. I also salute the decision not to re-record "For the Good Times". It might have fit into the album, it might have been a powerful recording, but I feel it also would have overshadowed and undermined the rest of the album. I imagine that was Price's reasoning for excluding it, and I base that assumption entirely on what little I've come to know about his philosophies on music through some sporadic interviews. He wanted Beauty Is... to stand on its own.

I am not a crier by nature. That isn't any kind of machismo; it's a physiological thing. There have been times when I've wanted, even needed, to cry but have been unable to do it. I'm in need of that kind of release right now as I write this, in fact. But man...when I got to "No More Songs to Sing", and I thought of Price's widow Janie...God. I can't even guess whether that would be impossible for her to ever listen to again, or if she would find some kind of comfort in playing it repeatedly for hours on end. I'll never know, of course, and that isn't even the point I'm getting at here, but rather how moving it was for me to feel privy to something so clearly intimate.

Each month in 2015 so far has brought death to my inner circle; my friend's stepfather in January, my own grandfather in February, and another friend's father just two weeks ago in March. I don't know why I held off buying Beauty Is... for nearly an entire year after its release. Maybe because I wouldn't have been ready for it then. I needed it now, though. Price intended this as everything from a farewell to a self-crafted epitaph, but also to comfort those left behind. He and I never met, never interacted in any way whatsoever. I was not on his mind when he planned and recorded Beauty Is.... And yet, I can't help but to feel that this album was made for all of us - myself included - to have it there to turn to when we need to be comforted by someone who knew he was running out of time.

This isn't the kind of album that one throws on for "background". It isn't for everyday listening, or something to be played casually, or to be talked over, or any of the other ways we often mistreat music. It is, however, a powerful work of art and I am truly grateful that Ray Price elected to dedicate his remaining time to its creation.