Reviews

The Jayhawks + Rosanne Cash: 21 October 2011 - New York

Chad Berndtson

With the Jayhawks, it always comes back to those voices and that vibe.

Rosanne Cash

The Jayhawks + Rosanne Cash

City: New York
Venue: Beacon Theater
Date: 2011-10-21

It’s a comforting old sound: the still-brilliant Mark Olson and Gary Louris harmonies, the good-time rock ‘n’ roll, the slightly scuffed country, the raffishly handsome folk that earns this band so many deserved comparisons to the Flying Burrito Brothers and Buffalo Springfield. There are the wrinkles, tattered edges and cracks that have come with age -- the band members are older, of course, all well past their early 90s heyday -- but the reformed Jayhawks of 2011 also have the tincture of a long road traveled, something un-fakeable in an era where every bearded strummer with a hint of whiskey in his voice gets hoisted on high and saddled with expectations.

In other words, the Jayhawks sound like the knowing, world-weary veterans they always evoked because, well, they are those guys now: elder statesmen presiding over a legion of front porch rockers, delicate folkies, fuzzed-out alt-country savants and poets of the plains that draw from the same forebears the Jayhawks had but also from the Jayhawks themselves. They’re hardly the broad genre’s only veteran torchbearers; Ryan Adams writes better songs when all of his planets are properly aligned, Wilco turned art damage-suffused alt-country into a blueprint and the Old 97s just friggin’ rock harder. But as the complete package goes -- the brilliant musicianship, the soul-cleansing vocals, the lyrics that can veer upbeat to brutal to country-sad to country-funny based on turns of phrase -- they don’t have much in the way of peers, and don’t seem ready to fade away, either.

Under a normal trajectory for a not-quite-ever-broken-up beloved rock band, 2011’s Mockingbird Time, the first proper Jayhawks reunion release and the first to feature both Louris and Olson in about 16 years, would usually be the type of decent album longtime fans could prop up with appreciative, if unenthusiastic nods and apologism, merely grateful for the chance to see the Jayhawks as a full-time touring apparatus once more. Instead, it’s a little bit better than that: a smart, sturdy album. Not Hollywood Town Hall smart or Tomorrow the Green Grass sturdy, but the essential elements are there, suggesting that once Louris and Olson get comfortable enough to really nail it, there’ll be great new Jayhawks music again.

The best endorsement for Mockingbird was how easily its tunes slipped into the broader Jayhawks catalog at the Beacon, where the Jayhawks played an encouraging, but truncated show dragged down by a surprisingly sedate crowd and an abrupt, buzz-killing close hustled up to meet a venue curfew.

It started pleasantly and finished as a near-let-down, witha dashed-off a version of the Sir Douglas Quintet’s “I Don’t Want” to tie off a two-song encore barely an hour and 15 minutes into their show. They were really just getting rolling by then, offering hints at the potential for higher-plane Jayhawks in a set that was more polished than the reunion gigs they had played at New York’s Webster Hall ten months earlier.

They pushed determinedly behind newer songs like “She Walks in so Many Ways”, “Tiny Arrows” and “High Water Blues” that offer melancholy, grace, rollick and dynamism, with the snatches of psychedelia that make strong Jayhawks songs well-rounded. They had an assortmentof vintage selections -- “Clouds”, “Take Me With You”, “Blue”, “Miss Williams’ Guitar” -- and found unexpected highs, such as drummer Tim O’Reagan’s “Tampa to Tulsa”, a gem from 2003’s Rainy Day Music. Their set-closer was the well-worn gospel staple “Up Above My Head”, adding a Jayhawks-ian twist to a song that’s been tackled by everyone from Sister Rosetta Tharpe to Al Green to Elvis Presley. Throughout, Louris and Olson had the essentials -- the harmonies, the prideful execution -- in place, while O’Reagan, bassist Mark Perlman and keyboardist and undersung colorist Karen Grotberg had an easy, no-frills rapport.

But it all just never quite took off, with the band overemphasizing the new material and clinically passing through the old stuff, while trying -- and sometimes succeeding -- at a coherent, well-paced, confidently stated set. Maybe they just need more time -- “more time” in the broader, many-miles-traveled, getting-used-to-each-other-again sense.

Or, maybe it’s just that they were outgunned at their own show. Where the Jayhawks seemed rushed and rarely at ease, opening act Rosanne Cash was resplendent and unhurried, leading a band that earned its climaxes and spread its arms and legs out into the wide expanses of its music, brushing aside sound problems and milking its moment.

Cash, the eldest daughter of country royalty, has made an admirable career out of straddling the country/folk-pop divide, with a near equal balance of graceful C&W and moody folk that mines territory familiar to Melissa Etheridge and Indigo Girls fans. She’s gotten a lot of mileage out of a 2009 album called The List, a collection of interpretations of essential songs Johnny Cash is said to have passed along, and at the Beacon, it was those songs that had the richest flavors, the tastiest finishes and the most resonance, from “Long Black Veil” to Bobbie Gentry’s still-wondrous “Ode to Billie Joe”, performed by Cash in a stripped-down duo with her lead guitarist (and husband) John Leventhal. Whereas the Jayhawks sort of let their set happen, Cash was in tight control, from the drama that oozed from her songs to the fun of collaboration with her bandmates. Louris emerged mid-set for a delicious duet with Cash on her “Seven Year Ache”, and it was some of his most relaxed playing and singing of the evening.

The arc of her set was near-perfect. A dramatic release came during “Girl from the North Country”, which Cash introduced as something Bob Dylan had rendered as an “Elizabethan folk song”, and whose version, in Cash’s hands, was haunting and lonesome -- a hypnotic experience that stopped time as Cash peeled back verses, line by line, and let them marinate.

Closing with her own “The Wheel”, the latter third of her set hit emotional pressure points the Jayhawks didn’t find -- or didn’t get a chance to find, or haven’t remembered how to hit. Advantage, Cash.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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