Friday, August 17, 2012

A Rollicking Good Time: Rosanne Cash & Band at Hamilton Place, August 15, 2012

Apparently the city of Hamilton doesn’t know what they missed last night. Rosanne Cash, Johnny’s daughter, played Hamilton Place to a half empty room. I sensed there was trouble selling tickets when they offered 2 for 1 for a week or two in July. They were still advertising “Tickets Available” in yesterday’s newspaper, but the audience must have been saving its money for Bruce Springsteen in October, or The Who next February. Well folks, you missed a great show!

As the lights dimmed right at 8 o’clock the firm fans soon discovered they were in for a full night of music. The opening act were three attractive young ladies in short skirts and cowboy boots who skipped onto the stage. This trio called BelleStarr included the redhead (Miranda Mulholland), the brunette (Stephanie Cadman), and the blonde (Kendal Carson). Miranda and Stephanie carried fiddles, Kendal a guitar, and they proceeded to sing a close-harmony rendition of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.” The audience loved it. They played a few originals enhanced by Stephanie’s step-dancing which acted as percussion to drive the tunes. During the intermission, the merch table was surrounded by adoring new fans.

Before the intermission, however, it was Alfie Jurvanen’s turn. A one-man-band who has released two CDs under the moniker Bahamas. He plays an acoustic guitar and has a strong, soothing voice that the women all seemed to love. They crowded him at the merch table too. The men gathered together in groups and said things like, “Too much of the same...” and “I’m not buying his CD ... I don’t have any trouble sleepin’.” To be fair, the guy has a unique style, and taken one or two songs at a time was quite enjoyable.

John Leventhal
With the intermission over, we returned to our seats and a disembodied voice welcomed “Rosanne Cash and her band”! The six of them marched in a line to their places behind their instruments and began to play. The sound was loud, the guitars clean, with Rosanne’s vocals a bit buried in the mix. By the second tune, it was adjusted. John Levanthal (Cash’s husband) is the band leader, and arranger, and one fine guitarist. He switched between a Telecaster, a Stratocaster and a small-bodied acoustic throughout the night, playing stinging leads or potent rhythm on every song. Rosanne quipped after one solo, “That’s the guitar solo that made me marry him. That’s all he had to do!” Leventhal replied, “Uhh, well, I had to do a bit more than that.” Rosanne was clearly the star, but Leventhal was the man who counted down the songs, provided the arrangements and main guitar riffs. The band looked to him for guidance, and so did Rosanne. She alternated between strumming an acoustic guitar and standing at the microphone unarmed. Her elegant hands and fingers drew filigrees in the air as she sings.

The second guitarist (Rich Hinman) played a red Les Paul and doubled on pedal steel. He was in the background much of the night, but traded leads with Leventhal on a couple of rollicking numbers. Bass was a steady bottom end played by Tim Luntrel, Dan Reiser was the drummer, and keyboards were provided by Jon Cowherd.

Rosanne was clearly happy these days after brain surgery which corrected a problem she'd had misdiagnosed as "migraines" for years. The interplay between husband and wife was casual and warm, jokey but always in support of Rosanne. The songs spanned many styles. In its original version, Johnny Cash's "Tennessee Flat Top Box" is a celebration of an acoustic guitar picker, but in Rosanne's hands it became the story of her husband and band mates. Leventhal and Rich Hinman traded solos like jazz musicians cutting heads. Who won? The audience!

The song "Radio Operator" told the story of her father in the army contacting her mother. Rosanne admitted she had only heard about this, and didn't experience it first hand, but her writing was clear, almost journalistic. Cowherd provided steady but undermixed keyboards save on two songs on which he was featured. He played organ most of the time and a short piano piece only late in the set.

When Rosanne began to play pieces from her latest CD, The List, fans in the audience seemed unfamiliar with the history of the songs from it (it's based on a list of the 100 "greatest country songs ever written" given to her by Johnny). I heard people attribute "Long Black Veil" to Robbie Robertson (it was actually written in 1959 by Danny Dill and Marijohn Wilkin and originally recorded by Lefty Frizzell), and murmur, "who's John Hiatt?" when Rosanne announced "It Hasn't Happened Yet". They were familiar with Hank Snow's Canadian roots though. She wondered at one point what the hundred and first song might be ... and then, accompanied only by Leventhal, she sang Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe.”

Rosanne's voice is not as immediately identifiable as her father's, but it is a powerful instrument in its own right. She can growl in the rockers alongside Hamilton's own Tom Wilson (who joined the band for an encore of "Heartaches By the Number," taking Elvis Costello's part) and still gently bring you to tears with emotion in "500 Miles." Fortunately the poor vocal mixing at the start only lasted for a song or two, then we were able to hear the full voice of Rosanne Cash. 

The only thing missing was “Land of Dreams,” the brilliant song she and Leventhal wrote for Discover America. The song was requested by a visiting group of travel workers, but Cash proclaimed that she wasn’t able to perform it as it was bought and paid for by Brand USA (the corporation behind Discover America whose mission is to get more people to travel to the US), and she didn’t want to be sued. She sang the first verse a capella and the band started to go into the song. But she quickly stopped them, “No, no, no...don’t do it.” It was a strange but intimate moment in a wonderful evening of music. The audience might have been small but Rosanne and her band gave it their all. They came to play.  

Although she didn't sing "Land of Dreams" at the concert, you can see and listen to it here.

– David Kidney has reviewed for Green Man Review and Sleeping Hedgehog. He published the Rylander Quarterly (a Ry Cooder-based newsletter) for 8 years before turning it into a blog, at He works at McMaster University as Director of Learning Space Development and lives in Dundas with his wife.

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