Johnny Cash 80th Birthday Bash; February 26, 2012; Majestic Theater
Johnny Cash has been gone for nine years now, but I think he would have approved of this celebration. The organizers drew together a diverse collection of artists, from young up and comer Whitney Mann to the venerable Midwesterners, to pay tribute to the man through his songs.
The night began with Blueheels frontman Robby Schiller. With his much loved band on hiatus, the opportunities to hear his unique voice are few and far between. Appropriately for a Sunday, Schiller chose to draw his selections from an oft overlooked part of Cash’s catalog, the hymns. He related the story of buying “My Mother’s Hymn Book” at a record store 15 years ago. “Johnny Cash does hymns?” the puzzled cashier snorted, “that’s weird.” “Really? Why?” asked Schiller. “Because he shot that man in Reno just to watch him die,” came the response. “So do you also think that Sting is a pedophile and Ringo Starr lives under the sea?” Like Cash, Schiller sings these gospel songs with conviction and gravity. So his fourth and final selection was a bit of a surprise. “I don’t know if this is really a hymn, but it is a Johnny Cash song, so I know you’ll like it,” he said before playing the hilarious “Egg Sucking Dog.”
Schiller was followed by Brown Derby, who just last month saluted the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens on the anniversary of “The Day the Music Died.” In their matching outfits and kerchiefs, they looked the part of a classy country band and played it as well. Participants had been encouraged to choose more obscure songs, so I wasn’t that surprised when I didn’t know “Blister.” They made some brave choices in the auctioneer wordiness of “I’ve Been Everywhere” and the lengthy (and totally awesome) “One Piece at a Time.” That feat was matched by Whitney Mann. “I never thought I would do this song, it’s so long it’s like reading a book,” she said before playing “The Legend of John Henry’s Hammer.” She nailed it without the lyrics, I was impressed. Of course, she already had my respect for playing the June Carter Cash song “Wildwood Flower.” Hers may have been the most inspired set of the night. In between there was a surprise guest, Barry Wayne Callen. "That's my god-given serial killer name," he joked before telling the story of how Johnny Cash saved his job. He followed the tale with a song he wrote about the event and his own take on Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt" which Cash had covered on one of his final American Recordings.
The Midwesterners have made a career out of playing the works of classic musicians like Cash and Chuck Berry in addition to their original songs, so it didn’t take much work for them to show up tonight and play a long set. They mixed classics like “Ring of Fire” and “Fourteen Tons” with lesser known songs like “Mean Eyed Cat.” Lead singer Richard Weigel shared vocal duties with upright bassist Tom McCarty, who acquitted himself well, and guitarist D Ernie Connor, who admittedly doesn’t sing as well as he plays guitar. Up until this point the musicians had been limited to just four or five songs, but owing to their background playing Cash they were given a longer set. With two artists left to play, I would have preferred a shorter set.
Josh Harty does not play Johnny Cash songs on a regular basis, so I will certainly give him a break for needing the lyrics for his selections, but not for screwing up on “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” It seems it should know this song backwards and forwards, since I’m going to guess he’s woken up “Sunday morning with no way to hang my head that didn’t hurt.” Even so, he did the best job of making the songs his own, instead of just doing Johnny Cash covers. His guitar on “Blue Train” sounded like it was part of his catalog of original tunes. When he invited Whitney Mann back to the stage I was hoping for Johnny and June’s classic duet “Jackson,” but I certainly wasn’t disappointed with their version of “It Ain’t Me Babe.” It was amped up compared to Dylan’s version, but it didn’t quiet reach the hoedown of Cash’s.
The night ended with the Liam Ford band from Milwaukee who specializes in Cash. Like the Midwesterners, it was pretty obvious that they play these songs all the time. They were good, but I was looking for more interesting versions of Cash’s catalogs. Besides, it had been a long weekend. I had worried that much of the good-sized crowd was going to leave but I shouldn’t have. When I made my way out, there were still plenty of people, many of them dancing. I’m guessing several of them were looking at a Monday morning coming down.
Barry Wayne Callen
Liam Ford Band