[5 December 2011]
It might be possible to become saturated with Johnny Cash releases. This year alone has given us three double-disc volumes in the Bootleg series. The first offered a collection of solo songs apparently recorded for personal use, and the second compiled relatively early rarities. This third volume Live Around the World does basically what you’d expect, grabbing performances from a variety of locations. Covering the period from 1956 through 1979, the set shows a large arc of Cash’s career. It also proves that it there is a Cash saturation point, we haven’t hit it yet.
The album starts in the very early years with three cuts from the Big “D” Jamboree in Dallas from 1956. With just Luther Perkins and Marshall Grant backing him, Cash has that solid Sun Records sound, and the set is certainly more than competent (and the audience loves it), but the group still has some growing to do. That sound’s aided by the arrival of drummer W.S. “Fluke” Holland on drums a few years later. Comparing this first version of “I Walk the Line” with the one from Maryland 1962 shows a significant change, but the band still seems to be feeling itself out. They’re quicker now, but that’s not strengthening the song, and the set isn’t helped by the silly impersonations.
We get one more version of the song on this disc, this time from the Newport Folk Festival in 1964 (without Holland, as befitting the folk setting). The group might sound its best here, which is kind of surprising given that the set has a bit of curator feel to it, especially on “Keep on the Sunny Side”, but excepting the ridiculous “Rock Island Line”. Again with Perkins and Grant, Cash is playing a folk show. It’s significant and interesting, but it’s not exactly what you’d expect, which is, of course, a large part of what makes it significant and interesting. Solidifying the country-to-folk crossover, Cash covers Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” apparently at Dylan’s request. Cash’s version stays relatively true to the original, yet still sounds like a Johnny Cash number.
The jump from there to the 1969 Vietnam show at an NCO club is a little jarring. Right from June Carter Cash’s introduction, it’s clear a different show is happening here. Cash is wilder, the band’s looser, and it’s the most energetic music we get on either disc, despite the fact that Cash was suffering from pneumonia during the show. The audience, as we’d expect, is properly receptive, even if Cash seems to fade a little by the end.
The second disc starts just over a year later, coming back to the US for an invitational performance at the White House in April 1970. Cash plays more of a stately part but—with the Carter Family, Carl Perkins, and the Statler Brothers along—it’s an energetic set, a combination that reflects that confident maturity developing from this point on. Cash mixes old folk numbers with plenty of gospel music, making a palatable set that’s still pure Cash. In introducing “What Is Truth” (to Nixon, as everyone will surely acknowledge), Cash doesn’t shy away from mentioning his own struggles with drugs, having only recently stopped using at this time.
Cash has played some of his most inspired music in prison settings, most notably Folsom County and San Quentin, so it’s not surprising to see some cuts from a jail, in this case Osteraker Prison in Sweden from 1972. If you’ve had your fill of Cash prison performances, you might be surprised. These cuts, culled from previous releases of the show, aren’t a rollicking man-in-black sort of set so much as a pleasant Sunday morning vibe, although maybe that’s just because the first piece is “Sunday Morning Comin’ Down”, a Kris Kirstofferson cover.
The rest of the disc runs through the 1970s mostly in the Southeastern US. The tracks are largely fine and his band varies from spot to spot, giving us a chance not only to hear Cash’s changing deliveries and attitudes, but also to consider alternative approaches to familiar numbers. The idea works well, although each of these sections are so short that we can’t get a full impression.
Even so, Live Around the World achieves its goal of capturing key moments and transitions in Cash’s performing career, at least for the first couple decades of it. Most, but not all, of this music is previously unreleased, and even the reissued songs, like the Osteraker tracks, add to a bigger narrative. The collection probably works best providing that story to someone familiar with Cash. Like most bootleg-style releases, it’s not an ideal introduction to the artist. It is, however, a pretty compelling look at him, sometimes as a study, but often simply as a strange sort of concert.