Johnny Cash - At San Quentin
Following on from the successful performance at Folsom Prison one year earlier, Johnny Cash, assisted by Columbia Records and Granada Television, organised a second prison show in February 1969 but this time at San Quentin in California. The previous year had been both good and bad for Cash - he had gotten married to June Carter after touring together for many years, he had found religion once again, At Folsom Prison was still in the charts but the guitarist who had been by his side for many years, Luther Perkins, died in August that year.
Nevertheless, when the gates of San Quentin opened and Johnny Cash took to the stage in front of the inmates with new guitarist, Bob Wootten, now in the band, it's as if the memory all all past events were no longer relevant as Cash tore through hs set in as raw and chaotic a fashion as he would ever get. Whilst a lot of this can be put down to Cash's happy marriage to Carter, Wootten's playing and Cash's connection to the audience are at its heart. As he tells the story himself during the recording, Cash had indeed spent time inside, albeit for a disturbance of the peace through picking flowers, not murder, but he cajoles, jokes with and speaks to the inmates at San Quentin as though he is indeed one of them; just one that got lucky with some chords, melodies and lyrics. Then again, with Perkins' light, country touch now absent, Wootten came in with an overdriven Fender Telecaster, moved his hand up the fretboard a little and double-timed Perkins' riffs, giving At San Quentin an immediacy and drive that the more-laid-back At Folsom Prison lacked. Tracks one and three - Big River and Wreck of the Old '97, respectively - are perfect examples of this, with the two-step of the verses being shoved out of the way by Wootten's guitar playing in the choruses. Even Cash's first national hit, I Walk The Line, is faster, tougher and has less of the innocence that made it a success in the first place. One doubts that this version of the song would have given Cash the hit he so needed at the start of his career.
Of course, it isn't all galvanised country as Cash's take on The Lovin' Spoonful's Darlin' Companion, written by that band's John Sebastian, later proves. This is such a wonderful piece of music that the joyful two-part vocal between Cash and his wife, June Carter Cash, both now deceased, will bring tears to your eyes, so clear was the love between them as they clash and give way to one another in partnering lines. As Johnny growls at his wife, "Oh little saucy mare like you should have a steed", June roars back, "Oh little bridle down from you is what I need" and both come in to sing, "Darlin' companion I tell the mountains and the canyons / Long as I got legs to stand on I'm gonna stick by you". June's soaring voice rises well above Cash's and whilst there are no harmonies between them, the pair make Darlin' Companion their own.
The middle of the album is taken up with a fair few of Cash's suite of prison songs, opening with I Don't Know Where I'm Bound and closing with a new song called San Quentin that, unsurprisingly, goes down well. As Cash snarls the lyrics, "San Quentin, you been living hell to me", only written the day before the concert, the audience whoops and hollers their approval. Cash continues with, "San Quentin, I hate every inch of you" and the inmates call for it to be played again. Hearing their shouting, Cash throws the setlist to the side and plays the song again, albeit in a shorter fashion.
Best of all with At San Quentin is that these are only a small number of the songs on the album. I've not mentioned Peace In The Valley, A Boy Named Sue, which became a hit off this album, Johnny's playing of his wife's song, Ring Of Fire, with June singing the Mexican horn riffs or even He Turned The Water Into Wine, which is introduced by Cash following a talk about his recent trip to the Holy Lands. Folsom Prison Blues sounds out of place but that may be as a result of it being cut out of the original release of this album, which is now available in a full-length version with an extra nine tracks. That, deservedly, is the only way to get this classic live album.
Finally, those of you who read CD booklets will see the famous photograph of Cash flipping the bird to a Granada television cameraman. Years later, after Johnny Cash won a Grammy for American II: Unchained, Rick Rubin paid to use this photograph to extend his and Cash's feelings to the country establishment for their lack of support over the years. Even in 1969, Cash's outlaw status was secure and it's no surprise, therefore, to see that he was embraced so warmly by the rock stations and acts that were thrown out of Nashville for being 'longhairs'. That image is strong, raw and too tough for the Grand Ole Opry but it and the music on the disc made At San Quentin amongst the best that Cash has ever done.