Cash emphasizes new songs at Sanders Theater

Rosanne Cash
The Boston Globe

By Marc Hirsch 

How good is Rosanne Cash? Well into the fourth decade of her career, she not only opened Thursday’s Celebrity Series of Boston concert at Sanders Theater with a brand new song, she proceeded to perform, in sequence, the entirety of a brand new album. In most other hands, such a move would be indulgent, prompting (at best) polite, impatient applause as the crowd awaits more familiar material. But Cash is so warmly expressive – and January’s “The River & the Thread” is, not so coincidentally, a legitimate career-peak standout in an already formidable catalogue – that her audience got on board quickly.

It didn’t hurt that quavery, steely opener “A Feather’s Not a Bird” perfectly articulated Cash’s approach, both as a performer and a songwriter: placid on the surface and roiling underneath. Her conversational delivery camouflaged the longing, hurt, and discovery buried in the bluesy, gospel-infused “World of Strange Design” and the skeletal twilight waltz “Night School.” It’s no wonder that the evening’s only song that she hadn’t previously recorded was “Ode to Billie Joe,” Bobbie Gentry’s classic of sublimated tragedy.

Cash’s own writing, on the other hand, would never refuse to directly address her subject matter. The literary specificity in her lyrics provided the complexity that her voice never had to push for; her singing on the gentle, sweet “Etta’s Tune” was so empathetic that she could hold back, knowing that listeners would be drawn in. “Modern Blue” may have been louder and faster, but even that featured a moment when, as the final verse began, Cash pulled her vocal back and the audience seemed to lean forward to follow her.

Crucially, and befitting the ease marking her performance, Cash also had plenty of opportunities to let loose. The creeping “Money Road” culminated in dueling solos from guitarists John Leventhal and Kevin Barry, prompting Cash to hop with joy when they boiled over. And in a second set providing just a smattering of songs from the rest of her career, the train-track clack of “Radio Operator” hit hard, while “Tennessee Flat Top Box” was spirited and spunky.

But the evening’s highlight was “When the Master Calls the Roll,” a tale of doomed Civil War romance built from mountain folk and classic country but played with softer, rounder tones. All of Cash’s warmth and empathy came to bear, giving it a widescreen scope that made it sound like she’d been singing it for ages.