Rosanne Cash's Black Cadillac is an absolutely stunning piece of work. A meditation on life and death‚ as universally and emotionally resonant as Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks‚ this January 2006 album was the focus of Cash's performance on October 6 at the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts in Vermont.
The video footage that began the performance‚ over which Cash narrated‚ appeared twice more during the evening. Even as it accentuated the bittersweet tenor of songs like "Black Cadillac‚" it never overstated the message‚ merely reminding those in attendance what Cash was talking about: not so much about mortality‚ rather an eternal journey of spirit‚ in which the present is just a bridge to the past and the future.
If that sounds like new age hokum‚ rest assured Cash and co. never came off as faddist philosophers. Rather Cash posited herself as a purposeful symbol of the continuity of the human condition and her choice of tunes bore that out. No image appears without purpose in her original material‚ so the repeated mention of thorns in "God is in the Roses" rescued it from sentimentality.
As with many of her best songs‚ the story being told doesn't become clear until the end‚ as with "Radio Operator." This approach is in the great tradition of country songs‚ but it'd be a misnomer to refer to Rosanne Cash as a country singer because it's too limiting a label. Besides‚ she bears little resemblance to what passes for country music today.
That was all too clear when she performed "Seven Year Ache‚" a 25-year-old number of hers that‚ facile as it is‚ only proves how much she's progressed in the interim. Instead of rifling her catalog‚ Cash chose selections from a list of songs presented to her by her father‚ thereby broadening the scope of her own music and placing "Burn Down this Town" in the proper perspective. The past will change as our respective futures evolve‚ she seemed to be saying.
And that's what made the performance of Johnny Cash's "Tennessee Flat Top Box" (recorded on her rootsy Kings Record Shop in 1988) so appropriate‚ especially given the fact his name was never mentioned outright the whole evening. A stark rendition of Bobbie Gentry's 1965 hit "Ode to Billie Joe" had its place as well‚ its cryptic story of life and death perhaps inspired by the recent school shootings in Canada and Pennsylvania-as well as Essex‚ Vermont.
If this all sounds somber‚ rest assured the understated musicianship lent a distinctly celebratory air to the evening at the Flynn Center. Rosanne Cash's rich‚ strong voice is a wellspring of emotion in itself. In contrast to the many photos where she's pictured serious to a fault‚ her manner was good-humored and sweet in acknowledging the audience's attention. And she loves to dance to the sound of her band‚ whether she's holding a guitar or not.
No surprise there either‚ as bassist Zev Katz and drummer Dave Mattacks (from England's storied folk unit Fairport Convention) played as sparsely as Johnny Cash's Tennessee Two back in the '50s. John Leventhal's a pretty fair guitarist who loosened up considerably as the night went on to culminate with the turbulent rocker "Dreams Are Not My Home." His well wrought solos and fills elaborated on the spaces and punctuated the songs‚ repeated reminders that Cash's tunes are not written expressly for the words alone.
Leventhal also lends multiple skills on stage. He plays piano and sings harmony‚ as well as being a songwriting partner to Cash on such poignant material as "House on the Lake." The no-frills arrangement of that tune suggests just how deeply bonded to the folk tradition Rosanne Cash has become over the years. As depicted in the voice over on the final video segment‚ it's one more clear connection to the milestones of her past‚ specifically to the musical tradition of her family.
If her appearance in Burlington‚ Vermont is any indication‚ she will carry on the name and her birthright proudly for years to come. Performed as the final tune‚ as on Black Cadillac‚ "The Good Intent" literally hearkened to her seafaring ancestors‚ but also carried a sentiment of fundamental optimism worth taking from the theatre into the world outside.