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This week's Playlist (see page 82) looks at three veteran entertainers--Paul McCartney, James Taylor and John Fogerty--who see new recordings as the best way to keep themselves in the public eye. Other folks with decades of stagework under their belts prefer to accomplish this goal via live appearances. After all, hitting the summer touring circuit is a lot easier on the muse than coming up with new stuff: Aficionados eager to see old favorites during the hot months generally want nothing more than to hear the hits done the way they remember them, and how hard is that? And yet, it is possible to take the high road--to grab the money of longtime fans without leaving them feeling cheated. Chuck Berry, Johnny Cash, Ozzy Osbourne (fronting a mostly reunited Black Sabbath) and Link Wray all had the opportunity to play the game the right way during recent Denver gigs. Predictably, not all of them did, but most of them provided at least a few good moments. And in this grimmest of all conceivable concert seasons (can anyone else remember a year that sucked this much?), that's a consolation.
Berry, of course, was the biggest offender, which is no surprise. He's been phoning in his performances for so long that he probably couldn't give his all if he tried, and at the annual KOOL Koncert--held on June 14 at Mile High Stadium, a few days before he duck-walked for Bill Clinton and other dignitaries in Denver for the obnoxiously overhyped Summit of the Eight--he most certainly did not. Wearing a gaudy Hawaiian shirt and a skipper's hat that the late Alan Hale apparently doesn't need anymore, the seventy-year-old Berry stepped before a sizable, multigenerational crowd during the late afternoon, and from the very first, it was obvious that he was going to put the absolute minimum effort into his act. His guitar was badly out of tune, but that didn't stop him from playing it anyhow. Moreover, his sense of time was so schizophrenic that the pickup band behind him seemed to have no idea what he was going to do from one minute to the next. Berry was just as clueless about the identities of his supporting cast. Instead of complimenting his lead guitarist by name after the musician ripped off a solo, Berry gestured in his direction and told the throng, "That's the blues."
Could this possibly have been the man whose guitar riffs are one of the essential building blocks of rock and roll? It was hard to believe from where I was sitting--in a luxury box with executives from (I kid you not) the Alzheimer's Association. At one point during the show, I glanced through the glass wall that separated my box from the one adjacent to it to see a prosperous-looking man in his early fifties ignoring the show in favor of the latest issue of the New Yorker. Apparently, he was more interested in reading the latest book review by John Updike than in discovering which ditty kicked off by the opening lick of "Johnny B. Goode" would actually evolve into the song itself. And maybe, in the long run, he made the correct choice. Cynics who believe that rock is a dead art form that should have been embalmed and confined to a museum a long time ago would have found plenty to bolster their argument in Berry's tired exhibition.
The beginning of Johnny Cash's June 17 gig at the Boulder Theater suggested that the Man in Black might follow Berry's mediocre example. The first song of the evening, "Folsom Prison Blues," was given a perfunctory reading, with Cash's longtime sidemen (including a drummer who's accompanied him for 38 years) vamping generically and Johnny wearing the impassive expression of a guy ready for a nice nap. But the intimate setting and a raucous assemblage that ranged from punk rockers to a family of six that seemed to have time-traveled to the venue from Dust Bowl-era Oklahoma eventually had an effect on the show's star. He became more animated with each passing composition, and by midway through his unexpectedly knowing version of Soundgarden's "Rusty Cage," his eyes were ablaze with the kind of passion that the former employees of Sun Records still talk about more than forty years later. From that instant until the end of the set's first section, he was a boisterous, enjoyably unpredictable presence. He was so cheered by the audience's reaction to a hopped-up "Ring of Fire" that he immediately played it again. Later, a video of a train crash that accompanied his obstreperous rendition of "Orange Blossom Special" tickled him so much that he couldn't help but guffaw. He had played these songs countless times, but on this night he found the fun in them again.
Unfortunately, the steam that Cash gathered began to dissipate when his wife, June Carter Cash, arrived. June is a fine performer in her own right, as well as an important historical figure: She was a member of the Carter Family, among the greatest of all purveyors of what's known today as American roots music. And she and her husband obviously have something special together. They've been man and wife since the Sixties, and her support is as good a reason as any that Johnny is alive and kicking at the age of 65. But to put it bluntly, what's best about Cash (his bleakness, his intensity, his Old Testament views of wrong and right) are diminished by her presence. She softens him--and while their duet of "If I Were a Carpenter" was sweet, that's all it was. As for June's part of the show, which she shared with Rosie Carter, her daughter from a previous marriage, it would have seemed pleasant had it not interrupted a far more intense display. Mother and child warbled a pretty version of "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," but that wasn't what I was waiting for. Instead, I wanted Johnny to croon about heartbreak and death, and I got my wish. After June and Rosie departed, he delivered "The Long Black Veil," an old Lefty Frizzell smash that is arguably the perfect Johnny Cash song. This macabre tale, narrated from beyond the grave by an executed man watching his grieving lover, is a journey to both heaven and hell--two places that Cash knows well. That he still seems unsure which of these regions will serve as his final destination has everything to do with his enduring vitality.
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