(LEGACY RECORDINGS/COLUMBIA RECORDS/SONY MUSIC; 2015)
There was a time when Cash ruled the world… a time before Rick Rubin and AMERICAN RECORDINGS and “Hurt.” In those days, a Johnny Cash concert was a cross-section of Americana: Equal parts Vaudeville, Grand Ole Opry and the Man’s hit variety show… you didn’t just get John, you would also get his wife, June Carter, along with her legendary family; his long-time friend and fellow Sun Records pioneer, Carl Perkins; >Cash’s famous backing band, the Tennessee Three (bassist Marshall Grant, drummer WS Holland and guitarist Bob Wootton) and longtime background singers, the Statler Brothers (real brothers Harold and Don Reid, Phil Balsley and Lew DeWitt), who were also one of the biggest Country acts of the day. MAN IN BLACK: LIVE IN DENMARK 1971 is a live television spectacular, originally available only in Australia on DVD… released thirty-five years after the event in 2006; it makes its American debut as an audio release (in a standard CD version, as well as a limited, Black Friday Record Store Day two-record set) here, nine years later.
The set starts with a rather mild take of Cash’s then-hit record, “A Boy Named Sue.” This version is nothing to write home about; the best description for the performance is probably “professional” and “workmanlike.” It is funny, though, when Johnny self-censors himself on the line “’Cause I’m the son-of-a-bitch that named you ‘Sue,’” replacing the pivotal invective, using “ …son-of-a-bleep… ” instead. Two songs in and it appears that the real problems here are a small, seemingly dispassionate audience and an equally dispassionate mix, not a lackluster performance by Cash, guest guitarist Carl Perkins and the Tennessee Three. This second tune, a serviceable reading of Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down,” is the first of three Kristofferson compositions featured in this set. Johnny’s halting spiel in Danish (or Swedish, as he calls it in a later exchange with June) – slow, reasoned and without inflection – kinda sums up the proceedings to this point. By the next number, a more lively version of Cash’s own “I Walk the Line,” the Man seems to be settling into his sterile studio environment. Carl Perkins’ brief solo set threatens to kick the proceedings into another gear, with a smokin’ version of the song that almost made him a household name… curse that Presley boy for recording his own version of “Blue Suede Shoes,” released (on the ELVIS PRESLEY album) just two months after Carl’s Sun single began its ascent to the top of the charts. “Matchbox” follows, a foot-stomping, hand-clapping Rockabilly highlight. Seemingly energized by Perkins’ performance, John offers up a truly heartfelt vocal on another Kristofferson masterpiece, “Me and Bobby McGee.”
A short snippet of an early Sun single from Cash, “Guess Things Happen That Way,” is really more of an introduction to the Statler Brothers, who are finally featured more prominently on backing vocals. With the spotlight shining on them for such a short time, the Brothers kinda forgo their comedy schtick, putting the focus on the music; that means that we have one of the greatest vocal groups of any genre performing one of their biggest hits, the relatively new “Bed of Rose’s,” with the rhythm section of Holland and Grant finally hitting their stride. A brilliant version of one of the Statler’s best (and most beloved) tunes, the crossover hit “Flowers On the Wall,” is highlighted by Harold’s voice, as he digs a little bit deeper and gets a little bit lower on the musical register than at any other time in the quartet’s storied career. The familiar chugging groove that was Johnny Cash’s trademark is on display on one of the Man’s biggest hits, “Folsom Prison Blues.” Finally, John seems at ease with his surroundings, delivering a nice vocal on his signature tune, with Bob Wootton adding a great solo.
You can actually hear Johnny’s heartbeat quicken as he introduces the love of his life, Valerie June Carter-Cash. June always brought out the best in Cash and her playful growls on John Sebastian’s “Darlin’ Companion” pushes a somewhat pedestrian song over the top. John’s gruff voice plays beautifully against June’s sweet warble on “If I Were a Carpenter,” one of the most brilliantly conceived love songs of all time. This is one of the best versions I’ve ever heard. The number transitions right into the final Kristofferson tune, “Help Me Make It Through the Night.” The male-female duet completely changes the context of the song into something far different than any solo version – not necessarily better, just different. Johnny Cash was always a rebel, an outsider – a sympathetic and an empathetic everyman who, like Jesus Christ, would dine with sinners and saints alike, drawing attention to the plight of downtrodden and the forgotten, the worth of men imprisoned due to their bad decisions… men deserving of a second chance.And, of course, the insanity of war. With one song, in less than three minutes, he voiced his concerns in one of the most damning indictments of “Man’s inhumanity to Man.” That song, “Man In Black,” is still as powerful and moving now as then and you can feel the anger and the world-weary pain through the haze of nearly forty-five years with this version.
After Johnny’s heartfelt introduction, the legendary Mother Maybelle Carter is joined by daughters Anita and Helen for a rousing version of the traditional fiddle tune, “Black Mountain Rag,” with Maybelle’s auto-harp replacing the fiddle. June joins her sisters for “A Song To Mama,” a tribute with a sentiment that is still valid for most of us today. The ladies, a classic Country and Western trio, bring in Cash for a spoken word piece before he leads them in the final chorus. A highlight of a Johnny Cash show in 1971 was a kind of everybody-in free-for-all Gospel campmeeting. John and June, with the Carters and the Statlers, belt out their new single, “No Need To Worry,” before diving into the eighteenth century hymn, “Rock of Ages.” The set closes with a rocking, stomping, high energy call and response Christmas song, “Children, Go Where I Send Thee.” Perkins, who had been sitting back as a member of the band, joins the rest of the headliners, managing to get everybody worked up with an unrestrained fervor when his vocal part comes around on “Six for the six that never got fixed” and, just maybe, reveling in the fact that he was one of those six. Cash, sharing his microphone with Carl, gets tickled as the two do a little jig toward the end of the song… it’s a moment in time, as the two music legends revel in a decade-and-a-half of friendship. Johnny Cash is an artist that we will never tire of and, because of our continual need for a Cash fix, one whose archive will continue to be mined for whatever material is available; MAN IN BLACK: LIVE IN DENMARK 1971 may not be the greatest release in the Cash canon but, it is fun and captures the Man at the height of his popularity.