Concept concert pays off for Rosanne Cash in St. Paul

09.08.14
Rosanne Cash
St. Paul Star Tribune

By Jon Bream 

Who releases a new album and travels in concert to play the entire new album live to start the show?

Kanye West and Beyonce did that on a very limited basis a couple of years ago. Smashing Pumpkins did it for their 2012 tour with "Oceania" (remember that one?).  Neil Young did it with “Greendale” in 2003 but that was really more of a rock opera with various characters.

Rosanne Cash is doing it this year with “The River and the Thread,” a concept album that is an elegant rumination on her Southern roots, and her presentation Friday night at the O’Shaughnessy at St. Catherine University was something of a theater piece.

There were photos – both historic and recent – as a backdrop to complement the songs, and introductions to songs that provided background and insight.

It was tremendously effective, adding dimension and depth to one of the year’s best albums. Throw in a second set of tunes from the rest of Cash’s career and it added up to a terrific concert – her best in the Twin Cities since the old Guthrie in 1991 when she was touring behind her “Interiors” album about her divorce.

On Friday, she was in excellent voice, good humor and great spirits – she was even dancing to her own music, especially during guitar solos by her husband John Leventhal and Kevin Berry. She performed with remarkable grace and warmth.

Cash’s brief introductions to “The River” songs provided context and perspective. For example, she explained how her famous father, Johnny Cash, had moved into the Dyess farm community project in Arkansas when he was 3 years old. He told her his first memory as a child was the five cans of paint when they moved into the house. That gave a whole new meaning to the number “The Sunken Lands,” whose opening line is “five cans of paint and the empty fields.”

Similarly, Cash told the story about Marshall Grant, Johnny’s longtime bass player and, as she explained it, the third person to hold her when she was born (after mom and dad, of course). Marshall and his wife Etta greeted each other every morning with the question “What’s the temperature, darlin'?” And that line became the key refrain in the song “Etta’s Tune.”

After the hour-long artful presentation of “The River and the Thread” and an intermission, Cash and her five-man band (including first-night bassist Andy Hess) showed her range in the second half. She performed her 1980s country hits, including “Seven Year Ache” and a remake of Johnny’s “Tennessee Flat Top Box” featuring a nice guitar jam between Leventhal and Berry; a tune from 2006’s “Black Cadillac,” and a few selections from “The List,” based on a list of 100 essential American songs that Johnny made for Rosanne when she was 18.

Hank Snow’s “Movin’ On” was spirited, “500 Miles” was soothing, and “Long Black Veil” was passionate. Cash turned Ray Price’s “Heartaches by the Number” into a giant sing-along. But the most moving performance of the night was Cash’s reading of Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe,” accompanied only by Leventhal’s acoustic guitar.

After singing it, Cash talked about how she and her husband had visited the Tallahatchie Bridge (a photo of her on the bridge is the cover of “The River and the Thread” and was shown during the concert). She explained that the bridge was walking distance from Robert Johnson’s grave and the grocery where Emmett Till, a black teenager, was accused of flirting with a married white woman in an incident that helped spark the Civil Rights movement.

Cash confessed that unlike Billie Joe McAllister, she and Leventhal didn’t toss anything controversial off the bridge. “We threw a guitar pick in that water,” she said. “Lame. But that’s all we could think of.”