The Great Lost Performance
3 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
When a legend dies, the flood of post-mortem releases spew out faster than spittle from Sylvester the Cat’s lips. Compared to the Grateful Dead, who are up to volume 80,000,054 of “Dick’s Picks” as recorded by Thomas Edison on wax cylinders, Johnny Cash’s legacy has yet to be marred by inferior release better left buried. Recorded in 1990 at The Paramount Theatre in Asbury Park, New Jersey, “The Lost Performance” teeters on the edge of bargain basement blathering by relying too heavily on homespun obscurities, but the Man in Black saves the show by mixing in some good ole classics that never fail to satisfy.
During his nearly 50-year career, Cash employed a number of musicians who locked into his rootsy country sound. Guitarist Bob Wootton was an able interpreter for almost 30 years, and anytime Carl “Blue Suede Shoes” Perkins slipped on a guitar strap, the music gained a lively rockabilly edge. Guitarist Kerry Marx is sometimes as exciting as Karl Marx on guitar, but he’s serviceable. The band on “Lost Performance,” which includes Cash’s son John Carter Cash on guitar, lopes at times, but they know how to play follow the leader.
The band does more of a country take on the normally incendiary “Ring Of Fire.” There should be enough wear and tear on Cash’s voice from singing this song for 30 years, but his voice is still strong, and the Carter Sisters provide a pleasant stand by your man back up. This has plenty of country hop to it, courtesy of Cash’s long-time drummer W.S. Holland stepping up the beat. Cash’s baritone rumbles, the piano plinks politely and the girls whooooo with country maiden poise.
Cash calls “Life’s Railway to Heaven,” one of his favorite country gospel songs. But its typical backwoods praise the Lord stuff blessed with a chirpy piano stride solo and a twangy guitar passage. The frequent problem with gospel is trying to navigate its tongue-fattening lyrics, and “Railway” is no exception: “There’ll be no disembarkation ‘till we reach paradise.” In the words of Jessie Jackson, save my disembarkation for another situation.
Cash relates singing “A Wonderful Time Up There” when his voice dropped at age 17 and his momma said “Don’t you stop. The Lord’s got his hand on you.” Well the bearded one upstairs may have been pulling Cash’s leg instead by steering him toward this quirky tune, which is unlike anything he’s done before or since. Cash calls it “Boogie woogie gospel,” but its country doo-wop -- “Get A Job” as interpreted by the Beverly Hillbillies. Cash rolls the words off his lips like an auctioneer hawking bids for Elsie the Cow. It’s interesting, a bit of a car wreck (and haven’t we all slowed to gawk at a fender bender every once in while) although it’s not really Cash’s forte. Despite the unlikely casting of the Man in Black as a doo-wop auctioneer, you’ll have a wonderful time with the results.
If the audience didn’t know who he was by now, four songs in our master of ceremonies announces, “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash,” then launches lickety split into “Folsom Prison Blues.” It’s almost too happy to be totally effective. Lead guitarist Kerry Marx plays a more elementary solo than six-string legend Carl Perkins, who’s sadly missed. Cash’s voice gets a little gravelly (even for Cash) during the second verse, but gets paroled for a rousing third stanza. “Folsom Prison” is one of those signature tunes that remained a crowd pleaser for Cash, fast or slow.
With this thoughtful observation, “Singin' these words reflectin’ back where I’ve been is important for me to do sometime, because I don’t want to lose track of where I’m tryin’ to go,” Cash backs his admiration for Kris Kristofferson by performing “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” Here’s a case of one roughshod singer covering another, and I’ll take Cash anytime. It’s an episodic path to a chorus, but when it finally comes around, the song begins to take on a listenable form. It’s the type of Bowery bum with a strong moral center tale that Cash and his fans relate to. Too bad it’s simply not that compelling. Add to it Earl Pool Ball’s cheerily out of place piano asides and it’s more like Sunday morning falling down.
“What Is A Man?” makes its stage debut and it’s instantly clear why it was left to gather dust. Its reeeaaal country and reeeal bad. The light piano intro gives the impression Minnie Pearl will be sayin’ “Howwwwwdy!” in a few verses. The Carter Sisters pass the plate with their misty-eyed vocals and virginal Lucy Clark has a clear Sunday school teacher voice, but this is a sluggish, heavy-handed bible thumper. “And you crown him with glory and honor, gave him dominion over land and sea and air” is more proof that the lyrics to inspirational songs can be more baffling than a Mandarin thesaurus. How many of your favorite songs have the word “dominion” in it?
“Forty Shades of Green” was written by Cash during a cross country trip in Ireland. He admits to the audience he created the song by opening up a map, picking out a few towns and making the lyrics rhyme. There’s some descriptive imagery even if Cash didn’t visit the places he names. With lute-ish mandolin and the Carter Sisters sashaying through the vocal charts “Forty Shades of Green” is a musical pot of gold.
Cash embarks on a four song Americana travelogue about the not-so-great Depression era that’ll make you wanna mow down his music stand with The Orange Blossom Special. Originally recorded in 1960, “Come Along and Ride This Train” is a chooglin’ sketch rather than a song. It holds your interest because Holland can imitate a passing train (and that’s an elementary trick any percussionist worth his union card can do). It staggers to a halt when Cash fumbles his way through a monologue about his harsh childhood living in what sounds like an outhouse Tobacco Road. “Five Feet High and Rising” follows, centering around a busted levee that destroyed his daddy’s humble farm. The song is reminiscent of “Muleskinner Blues” because Cash repeatedly asks the question “How high’s the water, momma?” but it’s nowhere near as memorable. It gets awful deep during “Five Feet High and Rising” and by its conclusion you’ll be convinced you smell something a lot stinkier than a cornfield full of swamp water. “Pickin’ Time” is the pick of the four-song litter, a cheery song about working yourself to death in the fields pickin’ cotton and pickin’ vegetables. It also contains one of the CD’s best lines: “Late Sunday morning when they passed the hat. It was almost empty back where I sat. But the preacher smiled and said that’s fine, the Lord will wait until pickin’ time.” The final vignette, “A Beautiful Life” is a depressing little number about field hands thanking God for working your fingers to the bone. It’s masochistic and thankfully short. Ah the Depression, what a hoot.
“Hey Porter” is one of the few concert tunes that outstrips the original. Holland deserves a tip for his open throttle percussion. Marx continues to be a slow handed but sure picker, and Cash deftly handles a suitcase full of lyrics, sounding convincing in the process.
“I appreciate your right to burn the flag if you want to, I also appreciate the right to shoot you if you burn mine.” So says Johnny the redneck patriot during his preamble to “Ragged Old Flag,” the story of the proud, tattered symbol of our country he noticed during his travels. When Cash asked a nearby homey why the tattered flag was still in use he got a history lesson. Naturally, Johnny turned the lesson into a song, a hayseed rap that follows the flag’s proud military saga from the Revolutionary War to the present. (Of course it’s impossible for the same flag to have seen service throughout every single skirmish, but it adds credence to all the chest beating.) At the risk of sounding like an anarchist, its Ugly American hubris like this that can serve as a theme song for Jihad.
“Tennessee Flat Top Box” is given the Marty Robbins “El Paso” treatment, and is another example of Cash’s back catalogue serving him well in concert. There’s some nice south of the border acoustic picking on the “Flat top box” by Marx as he shows why he was picked to succeed Wootton and Perkins.
“Ghost Riders In the Sky” is another familiar tune that the old cowpokes in Cash’s revue handle easier than a drover guiding a dairy cow. These riders don’t ride hard so much as they saunter through the sky. Holland’s lightning bolt beat (love the work on the high hat) and the Carter Sisters ghostly wailing give the song plenty of spirit. Yippee-I-o-Yippee-Ay-yay!
June Carter Cash joins her husband for an energetic and slightly haphazard pass at their country smash, “Jackson.” June still had plenty of growl in 1990 and her usual sass which helps juice Cash up. It may take Cash and his soul mate a little longer to get to Jackson, but they still know how to strut their stuff once they’re in sight of the city limits. Somewhere recently deceased composer Lee Hazelwood (who did the definitive version with Nancy Sinatra) is smiling smugly.
Cash closes with an obligatory “I Walk The Line” (Sorry, no “Boy Named Sue.”) The band vamps up the ending to almost Vegas proportions, finishing with a flurry as Marx leans into an exiting solo.
In between homespun homilies and spiritual epiphanies, The Man in Black was still first and foremost a charismatic entertainer. Is this really the great lost performance? No. More like the pretty good lost performance