Rosanne Cash - St George's, Bristol
Growing up gracefully is one of life’s intangible mysteries. Some people want to but try too hard (Hello overdone plastic surgery). Others don't necessarily want to, but do so without trying. The music world is full of both.
With Dolly Parton getting a lot of press recently for rolling out the hits and transfixing Glastonbury, it’s a good time for another country legend to be on the touring trail in the British Isles. Definitely growing up gracefully is Rosanne Cash, who’s here for the Cambridge Folk Festival, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. She’s managed to slot in a couple of smaller dates as warm ups for the main event and for her first time in Bristol (“I never knew Bristol was such a music town” she proclaims), St George’s is the venue - a converted church which looks a little like a village hall from the inside. The audience is of the “Darby and Joan” variety as observed by the couple sat next to me, and the view for some of the audience (your TMF rep included) is of the back of Cash and husband John Leventhal’s heads. It’s not a great, but it lets you watch the rest of the crowd as the duo on stage get to see them.
For the most part there’s silence, the attention fully on the (wo)man-in black Cash and a cowboy shirted Leventhal, not a single word of chatter, or noise, throughout the hour and forty minutes. There are plenty of flyers being fanned in faces though; it’s warm in the church leading Cash to observe “I forgot you Brits don't believe in air conditioning. You’ve evolved beyond that!” The sweat suggests otherwise.
The most obvious thing about a Rosanne Cash show is that she’s not really a singer; not in the sense she can’t hold a note, she can - and her voice is all kinds of qualities. It's more that she’s a storyteller at heart. Each song is introduced with a description: the opening line of ‘Etta’s Tune’ (“What’s the temperature darlin’?”) is what the bass player in Johnny Cash’s band said to his wife every morning. Ably supported by Leventhal who paints background colours, the stories give an added depth to the music and the experience of seeing Cash live. The guitarist himself is given plenty of chance to flourish with restrained, yet effective, guitar breaks, particularly on ‘Motherless Child’ and song of the night ‘Tennessee Flat Top Box’. Plus Cash is very funny: her dry wit is perfect for these quiet, thoughtful shows. And the chemistry between the pair is great, their subtle looks and fluid take on songs and the setlist make the show feel unique.
Then there are the songs; mainly focussing on her three most recent albums (2014’s wonderful The River and the Thread, 2009’s The List, and 2006’s Black Cadillac) the duo move from the smoky brilliance of ‘Feather’s Not A Bird’ to the bluesy American folk story of ‘Ode To Billie Jo’ and the gospel flecked ’50,000 Watts’. There’s not a wasted tune in the set.
This is a show of consummate quality, a couple that have spent decades refining their art and showmanship. It’s by turns quiet and reverential, ballsy and bluesy, the perfect example of how to grow gracefully both musically and on stage.