Both of these DVDs of concert performances showcase Cash in all his rough-hewn glory. The Austin City Limits show is from 3 January 1987, and the Ireland concert comes several years later, on 11 February 1993. But both find him in fine form, his deep voice booming. Audiences can hear a compelling mix of constant favorites like “I Walk the Line”, “Folsom Prison Blues”, and “Ring of Fire”, as well as a few less common songs thrown into the mix. Ireland gets a topical nod with his composition, “Forty Shades of Green”, while the Texans hear him do John Prine’s “Sam Stone”.
He proves the consummate showman, waiting until a few songs in to deliver his trademark, “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash,” sparking waves of howling applause. Cash’s road show is tight and polished, so these concerts are entertaining. Even more than that, they give fans a window onto a particular era in his career, one replete with its own dramas and portents.
Both concerts find him looking backward with some degree of nostalgia at his rockabilly roots from the ‘50s. They capture a moment in his career when he was still doing “The Johnny Cash Show” revue, replete with his band, The Tennessee Three (including original drummer W. S. Holland), and June Carter Cash and some incarnation of The Carter Family joining him on stage for a few numbers.
During this period, Cash was no longer having as much chart or radio success as a solo artist, though his concert tours always played to a dedicated fan base. Instead, he was having more success with his supergroup, The Highwaymen (along with Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Kris Kristofferson), releasing chart-topping records with them from 1985-1999. The Ireland concert marks that development when an energetic Kristofferson trots out as a guest star, guitar in hand and harmonica strapped on, joining Cash on “Long Black Veil”, “Big River”, and “Forty Shades of Green”.
And so these concerts find Cash during a somewhat difficult period in his solo career, after Columbia dropped him in 1986 and while he searched for some direction. But this was about to change. He soon found his career rebirth, new chapter, and brilliant coda with producer Rick Rubin and his stripped-down, award-winning albums on American Recordings (many featuring just him and his acoustic guitar and his catalogue of folk music/traditional country classics as well as new Americana roots classics), from 1994 through his death in 2003, with posthumous releases still appearing.
These concerts show Cash chafing at the bit a little musically. The standard songs include, on both, “Ghost Riders in the Sky”, “Long Black Veil”, and “Big River”. At both performances, Cash spends time talking about “I Walk the Line”, explaining when it was written and what the original sound was all about, and he then proceeds to try to play it as closely like the original recording as possible. During the Austin performance, he says: “In case you’ve been born since ‘56 and never heard it…this is the way it sounded 31 years ago when we recorded it.”
The old school performances are the freshest at both concerts, perhaps illustrating how Cash was trying to think about his future direction by looking back at the past in a purer way. This strategy works to particularly good effect at the Austin concert. Holland comes out of his drum set to play a snare, set up just behind Cash. He plays it with brushes, clearly establishing that famous boom chicka boom sound. Cash whips his guitar about as his plays the harmony in a pick-strum fashion, often moving up the neck of the guitar. Because the song is so distinctive and Cash’s throwback rendition of it so unique, the effect is winning.
Some of the backing vocals and instrumentation and bigger production you hear on other songs are exactly the elements Cash decides to shed when he moves on to his American Recordings outings later. The Austin show features a tighter, more polished performance by his backing band, there joined by a horn section. And because Cash is the featured performer all night, with June Carter joining him for a duet of “Where Did We Go Right?” as the penultimate song, the concert rests on his vocal cords alone, and he carries it gracefully and resonantly.
The Ireland concert, in contrast, is much more of a family affair, which doesn’t always prove as compelling. Cash is still in good voice and as charismatic as ever, though he appears somewhat more tired. It would only be a few years after this time that a series of health problems forced Cash off the road. Here, he becomes much more animated when Kristofferson arrives mid-way through the proceedings.
He begins the concert with a nod to the classic folk traditions enshrined by June Carter’s family. With The Carter Family (here June, her daughter Rosie, and her sister Helen), Cash kicks things off with Carl Perkins’s “Daddy Sang Bass”. As he sings bass, his voice is polished and smooth. As The Carter Family provides the back-up vocals along with Cash’s band, some of the singing becomes spottier. June sings “Keep on the Sunnyside” (A.P. Carter) with the Carters. While her voice can be rough, she expresses great emotion and character in her singing. However, some of the vocals from other band members are not as strong, and they do not have the personality to carry them through.
Son John Carter Cash steps forward for “Georgia on a Fast Train”, and he injects a rock edge, as June’s daughter Rosie does later as she takes the lead on “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” (A.P. Carter), which June dedicates to the memory of her mother, guitar ace Maybelle Carter, member of the original Carter Family and leader of many later variations. Rosie’s rugged vocals break down a bit, Helen fusses at the guitarist to “pick it up”, and the number is in danger of unraveling until June laughing asks the audience to join in, selling it. Later in the concert, June joins Johnny on their famous duet, “Jackson”, full of playful vigor. But then the concert loses some energy when Cash exits the stage for the Carter Family to do “Wabash Cannonball” (A.P. Carter) and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”.
While these dynamics are typical of his long-running road show, they don’t always work as well as one might hope. While the family dynamic can be touching, and the effort to preserve Carter Family and folk music classics is important, Cash often does best on his own as a performer. The Ireland concert does have a fresh moment when Cash and the band play his rockabilly song “Get Rhythm” with a slide guitar and bluesy piano joining in and adding to the rhythm and blues references more fully than in the original recording of it.
Throughout both concerts, Cash anchors things with his familiar repertoire, and yet both provide a signal of something different to come.
Johnny Cash - Live From Austin TX
Johnny Cash - Live in Ireland 1993