Archives: Rosanne Cash @ The Philharmonic Hall, Liverpool, UK – Review
This article was first published on July 20th, 2015 on forthecountryrecord.com.
I have a confession to make. Before I attended Rosanne Cash’s show in Liverpool on Sunday night, I had listened to precisely half of her latest album (‘The River & The Thread’, 2014), and was unfamiliar with the rest. There seemed no better opportunity, therefore, to become acquainted with her music than at a live show, one which simply featured herself and husband John Leventhal graciously seducing the crowd with expertly delivered song after song.
Once the vast majority of the crowd had settled into their seats in the magnificent Philharmonic Hall, the night’s support act took to the stage. A blues singer from Liverpool, Sophie Anderson began her set with the awkward stage patter that would ultimately come to bother me throughout – although her voice was incredibly adept, her songs were well-written and her performances were relatively dynamic given their acoustic nature, she seemed unsure of herself in this large venue, where audiences sat hushed in respective silence during her songs. Over time, I’m sure she will gain confidence and be able to let her personality shine through in between performances; still, from a musical perspective she was clearly talented, and a good choice to warm up the crowd.
Following a short interval, Rosanne Cash and John Leventhal took to the stage with all the understated stage presence that such gracious legends are afforded. Rosanne decked in almost all-black with the exception of a green sparkly cardigan, while John stood tall in a smart business suit, their 90-minute set began with the up-tempo ‘Modern Blue’ from ‘The River & The Thread’. Rosanne refers to the album as being set in “the deep dark strange mysterious peculiar but beautiful American South”, before explaining in great detail the inspiration behind ‘Sunken Lands’; telling the story in a poetic, dramatic spoken word style, we are thrown deep into the tale of her grandmother Carrie Cash, who moved with her family to the Sunken Lands of Arkansas in 1935. This affected way of sharing the real-life experiences behind her songs became a regular motif throughout the night, particularly when discussing the tracks on her latest album. Rosanne tells us with a smile about Marshall and Etta Grant, the former of whom was a member of her father’s band Tennessee Two, and how the couple were married 65 years before Marshall died in 2011. Etta had recounted how every morning they would wake up and her husband would ask her, “What’s the temperature Darling?” That became the first line of ‘Etta’s Tune’.
‘A Feather’s Not A Bird’, the song that won Rosanne two Grammys this past February, is also afforded a careful introduction, this time set in Alabama as her friend was teaching her how to sew. “You’ve got to learn to love the thread honey,” was the line that danced in metaphor in Rosanne’s mind and eventually became an award-winning song. ‘The Long Way Home’ explores “making a lot of left turns, and a lot of excursions to find out who you’re not” while in your 20s and 30s, although, she notes with a glint in her eye, if you’re still doing this in your 40s and 50s you might want to look into it. ’50,000 Watts of Common Prayer’, meanwhile, follows a long and thoughtful explanation of WDIA, a radio station in Memphis where the late BB King was a disc jockey during the 1940s, playing race music and subsequently influencing a whole generation of country and rock ‘n’ roll musicians. “That’s my kind of church,” she muses before launching into the song.
But it was in the unscripted, off-the-cuff moments where the fiercely talented duo shone the brightest. Early in the set Rosanne paused to tune her guitar, quipping “the moon must be in faeces or something” when she couldn’t get it right. The audience’s laughter had hardly died down before John said, “I think you might need some help”, the rumbling of chuckles rising again. Still, Rosanne had her revenge, as just three performances later John was in the same position. “Need help?” she asked him with tongue in cheek, as the crowd laughed and applauded. “No, let’s not encourage that kind of behaviour,” John jokingly responded.
From there the pair ran through a number of older tracks and classic covers, some of which hailed from her 2009 album ‘The List’. From ‘Long Black Veil’ (“You just don’t hear the word scaffold on top 40 radio anymore”), to ‘Sea of Heartbreak’ (originally a duet with Bruce Springsteen, leading her to quip “you’re like the Underboss!” to her husband), from ‘Girl From The North Country’ (Bob Dylan/Johnny Cash) to ‘I’m Movin’ On’ (Hank Snow), and from ‘Bury Me Under The Weeping Willow’ (The Carter Family, for balance) to ‘Tennessee Flattop Box’ (Johnny Cash), Rosanne proved that her renditions of classic songs are equal to, if not superior to, their originals. The stories continued, as Rosanne described her 1981 hit ‘Blue Moon With Heartache’ as like a relationship, where in the 35 years she had been playing it she began infatuated, then later came to hate it (“want to break up with the song”), and finally found true love with it. “I wrote this song when I was younger than my youngest daughter,” she muses, and for a moment we are allowed to reflect on the wisdom and life experience being shared with us in this surprisingly intimate show.
Rosanne also tells us how ‘When The Master Calls The Roll’ started as a co-write between John and her ex-husband Rodney Crowell (she pauses at this point to let the audience laugh at such awkwardness), and intended for Emmylou Harris. When Emmylou didn’t record it, she convinced Rodney to re-write the lyrics with her to reflect the story of two of her Civil War ancestors, discovered when looking at the Civil War database with her son Jakob.
Behind the stories, the laughter and the expansive back catalogue, however, was an astonishingly beautiful musicality and connection, with John’s guitar work a true highlight of the night and an aspect that Rosanne was not afraid to let take center stage. The two seemed in perfect sync and Rosanne would move to the rhythm of her husband’s playing with a grin on her face that showed this was far from just a routine performance. Her vocals, too, were as if lifted straight from record and with as much heart and soul embedded as had ever been. Closing with ‘Seven Year Ache’ and invited back for an encore of ‘Western Wall’ (a song she wrote, recorded by Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt), and ‘500 Miles’, the duo’s stripped-back performance managed to keep an entire audience captivated in reverence for a full 90 minutes, despite running a very simple affair.
That night introduced me to the wit, charm and musical perfection of Rosanne Cash and John Leventhal, and I don’t think I will forget it in a hurry. Consider me an instant convert.