Friday, January 31, 2014

Movin' On: Rosanne Cash Live at the Burlington Performing Arts Centre

Photo by Clay Patrick McBride

For my entire life I have been trying to give voice to the rhythms and words that underscore, propel, and inform me. Because my peripheral vision is more acute than my direct powers of observation, and my love of an A-minor chord is more charged and refined than my understanding of my own psyche, I have often attempted to explain my experiences to myself through songs: by writing them, singing them, listening to them, deconstructing them, and letting them fill me like food and water. I have charted my life through not only the songs I’ve composed, but the songs I’ve discovered, the songs that have been given to me, the songs that are part of my legacy and ancestry. Through them I’ve often found meaning and relief, while at other times I’ve failed to recognize or understand a rhythm or a theme until it became urgent or ingrained and I finally came across a song that captured that experience…My life has been circumscribed by music…”

Rosanne Cash said all that in the introduction to her brilliant 2011 memoir Composed. And last Saturday night at the Burlington Performing Arts Centre, she and her band took a sold out audience on a journey through music that no one will soon forget. The Performing Arts Centre in Burlington is a gem. Medium-sized it maintains an intimacy and warmth that makes it a first choice as a venue for acoustic music such as Rosanne plays. There is a carpark directly next door offering free parking after 6pm and all day on weekends. This is a bonus if you’re used to theatres in Toronto, or other big cities. And the icy cold didn’t affect us either since the car park is connected by a bridge to the theatre. Genius.

The stage was laid out with carpets marking each of the musicians who would take part. Rosanne’s husband John Leventhal bandleader and guitarist was on the left. Two electric guitars and an acoustic sunburst resting on stands waited for his hands. On the right another selection of guitars, including a lap steel awaited second guitarist Kevin Barry, a studio pro from Berklee. Zev Katz would play bass behind Barry, and to the left again behind Leventhal was a keyboard for Glenn Patscha. Between them a drum kit for Dan Reiser. The five musicians walked out together and took their places. Then came Rosanne Cash, her hennaed hair glowing such a toxic orange that you could see her wherever she stood (but she took her place at centre-stage). Cash announced that she had just released a new album some eleven days earlier, and was going to play the whole thing in order. I’m certain that some hearts sank in the audience of what looked to be mainly fans of her father, Johnny Cash. I noticed a selection of Johnny T-shirts amongst an older (and quiet staid) audience. I mentioned to my wife that this was a brave move for anyone. To play all new material? Virtually unheard of! I couldn’t wait.

I’d been enjoying The River & The Thread for a few days, having pre-ordered it from her web-site, and
the band played through the songs from the album one by one. The unfamiliarity of the tunes didn’t matter, since each song was illuminated by images on the back wall of photographs from the trips Cash and Leventhal had taken throughout the south. The cover photo, in fact, was taken by Leventhal as Cash looked out from the Tallahatchie Bridge. You know the one. Where Billie Joe MacAllister jumped from in Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe.” That bridge, Rosanne would tell us, is a focal point not far from the grave of blues legend Robert Johnson, and on the other side the small grocery store where 14 year old Emmett Till signed his death warrant by ‘flirting’ with a white woman in 1955. The photographs that form the back drop to the first half of the show expand on the songs, the lyrics seem clearer due to the illustrations, and animation. Kevin Barry plays the stinging slide guitar lead that Derek Trucks provided to “World of Strange Design” on CD. John Leventhal adds harmonies throughout the evening even though he’s suffering from bronchitis. He has trouble with his guitar all night, but it seems to have more to do with his monitor than the room sound. Rosanne reminds us that this is an album, “a CD is merely a delivery system…this is an album.” And the concept is marvellous. Not unlike Blackie & the RodeoKings’ recent album, it’s a drive south.

After a 20 minute intermission John and Rosanne return. He begins the rhythmic opening that links both halves of the show. Rosanne sings “Ode to Billie Joe.” From then on, it’s all the hits all the time. A handful of classic songs from The List start things off. This was another concept album based on a list of important country songs given to her by her father. In 2011 she recorded a dozen of them, this night she plays four. A strangely upbeat “Long Black Veil,” Hank Snow’s “I’m Movin’ On,” and Dylan’s “Girl From the North Country” all come from that album. She rocks a bit with “Seven Year Ache.” She explains writing “I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Love Me” as a response to not winning a Grammy…and then confesses that the following year “I Don’t Know Why…” won a Grammy. She pays tribute to her father’s time in the Air Force in Germany with “Radio Operator.” Then it’s goodnight.

Rosanne Cash live at the Burlington Performing Arts Centre

The crowd jumps to its feet cheering and applauding and it’s not long before the group is back on stage. Someone yells out “Tennessee Flat Top Box,” a song of Johnny Cash’s which was a hit for her. She says, “I don’t think the band knows it.” They confer. Everybody knows it except the bass player, and he’s willing to give it a shot. They create probably the best magic of the night with this display of spontaneity. This excitement continues with the last number, the final song from The List, and we’re asked to sing along on the chorus. I try giving it my best Elvis Costello harmony on “Heartaches By The Number.” The music stops, she throws us a kiss, and Rosanne Cash and band disappear. They’re movin’ on. Gone to the next town, the next show. They’ll perfect a version of “Flat Top Box” now. Everybody wants to hear that one.
Over coffee with some old friends we rehash the show. I just want to go home, and listen to the album again, to relive the moments. Songs that I’ve discovered, songs that Rosanne wrote, that have become (or are becoming) part of my life.

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, Ontario with his wife.

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