Big River Project: The Music of Johnny Cash


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Words by: Matthew Jaworski

The Big River Project: The Music of Johnny Cash
07.26.08 :: World Financial Center Winter Garden :: New York, NY

Quintessential Cash

Few figures in American music history are more universally respected and revered than Johnny Cash. The Man In Black's songs are timeless and appeal to even those who wouldn't consider themselves country music fans. Fittingly, the dozen artists that gathered at New York City's World Financial Center for The Big River Project's tribute to Cash cover a wide array of musical styles, yet not a single one would be considered a standard “country" musician. In fact, practically every act hails from New York City. Likewise, the audience itself was a weird amalgamation of diverse people, which simply underscores the enduring, unifying and universal elements of Cash's formidable songs.

Opening the show was the Brooklyn-based Hymns. With plenty of skinny-jean swagger, the band energetically whipped through two songs, “Sea of Heartbreak" and “I Never Picked Cotton," from Cash's 1996 album Unchained. They picked two great tunes that nicely matched their alt-country vibe, but, unfortunately, the acoustics in the massive steel, glass and marble atrium were not very accommodating. The music was a wave of muddy noise and the vocals drowned out.

In contrast, a cappella group The Persuasions sounded fantastic and their warm, rich voices turned the hall into a cathedral. The group - who has recorded a cappella tribute albums to Frank Zappa, U2 and The Grateful Dead - started with the classic “Ring of Fire," twisting its familiar freight train beat into a smooth, gospel groove. They followed it with a stellar version of “The Wanderer," a track Cash recorded with U2 for their Zooropa album. The two songs' different takes on the themes of love and damnation intertwined perfectly, and The Persuasions exited to one of the evening's loudest ovations.

After a gorgeous, though brief, version of “I Shall Not Be Moved" by guitarist Raul Midon, the Benevento/Russo Duo took to the stage and they certainly did not disappoint. Taking two songs from Cash's masterful comeback album, American Recordings, the Duo, more so than any other artist on the bill, provided the most radical, unique departures from the original recordings. Playing acoustic piano, Marco Benevento introduced the melody to “Delia's Gone," while drummer Joe Russo layered in wispy shakers and cymbals. Without the brutal lyrics ("First time I shot her/ I shot her in the side/ Hard to watch her suffer but with the second shot she died"), the song swelled and swayed with a dense, frothy jazz groove. It was an impressive, audacious, and (for those unfamiliar with the Duo, at least) unexpected adaptation, and it led the guy standing next to me exclaim, “Wow, who the hell are these guys?!" The second song, “Bird on a Wire," was a slower, brooding jam that had Russo sweetly strumming an acoustic guitar while lightly playing the bass drum and hi-hat with his feet. Benevento coaxed out the notes as he artfully mimicked the vocal strains. Towards the end, Russo put down the guitar, picked up his sticks, and the Duo slammed through the dirge's final measures. As the final note resonated, the crowd cheered loudly, leaving many people wanting much more Duo.

The Man In Black

Next up was the dynamic collective The Sway Machinery, who hit the ground running with a hopped-up version of “Get Rhythm." Mixing equal parts of ska, funk and Jewish Cantorial music, the band featured a face-melting horn section that blew everybody away. Playing a gargantuan bass saxophone, Colin Stetson supplied a mudslide of low-end, while the trumpet and tenor sax section from Antibalas - Jordan McLean and Stuart Bogie, respectively - blasted away furiously. Likewise, lead singer and guitarist Jeremiah Lockwood proved to be quite the showman and his unique voice fit perfectly with the song's hepcat vibe. They turned their second tune, “Come In Stranger," into a slow ballad, which could have been abrupt and anticlimactic, if not, once again, for the soaring horns, especially a phenomenal trumpet solo.

The folk-rock group Ollabelle stepped up to back a few solo artists who performed one-offs: Marshall Crenshaw ("Mean Eyed Cat"), Laura Cantrell ("The Beast in Me") and Catherine Russell ("Like the 309"). Ollabelle also supported singer-songwriter-guitarist David Bromberg, whose husky, inviting voice and tasteful, superb guitar playing perfectly suited “Drive On" and “Walking The Blues." After Bromberg's pair, Ollabelle presented two Cash staples, “Sunday Morning Coming Down" and “Long Black Veil." In lesser hands, these tunes could have been pedestrian, but the band unleashed stellar vocal harmonies that allowed Cash's mighty lyrics to take center stage.

Jay Farrar (Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt) followed with excellent takes of “Home of the Blues" and “I Still Miss Someone." Both tunes were languid and atmospheric with haunting, reverbed guitars. Farrar was only backed by one other guitarist, but the sound was absolutely massive.

John Doe (X) had the duty of closing out the show. With his gravelly baritone, black suit and bolo tie, Doe became the honorary Man In Black. He and his band pumped up the audience with faithful, fun renderings of the classics “Folsom Prison Blues" and “Big River." Of course, no Johnny Cash tribute would be complete without “Walk The Line," so Doe brought out the rest of the night's performers for the encore, to trade verses on the legend's signature song. The guitars rang their final notes and the crowd thanked the musicians for a wonderful night. Not bad for a bunch of Yankees.

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