Rosanne Cash’s brave transformation from country music star to sublime singer-songwriter is right up there with any of the bold chameleon-like career moves by bigger and flashier pop stars like David Bowie, Neil Young or Madonna.
Now it seems as though maybe Cash is ready to move on to something else, and I’m not just talking about her opening number at MASS MoCA on Saturday night – a moody, haunting interpretation of Hank Snow’s classic “I’m Movin’ On.”
At the Empire State Book Festival at the Empire State Plaza two months ago, Cash noted that although she still considers herself primarily a songwriter rather than a singer, her most successful album of the past 20 year is her latest, “The List,” which doesn’t include even a single one of her own songs. “It really shook me up,” she said at the time.
Yet in front of a sold-out, standing-room-only crowd at MASS MoCA’s Hunter Center, Cash seemed to have come to terms not only with those songs but also with her wealth of talent as a vocalist. Nearly half of her song selections were drawn from “The List,” and she seemed to crawl inside each one, bringing uncommon depth, especially to the back-to-back pairing of “Long Black Veil” and Dylan’s “Girl From the North Country,” both of which she proclaimed to be “perfect songs.” She inhabited them as though they were her own, as though she had written them, as though only she had some secret insights that could peel back the layers and get right to the heart of the songs.
She was, in short, a most exquisite song interpreter.
That almost cabaret-like feeling was reinforced by the fact that she only occasionally picked up a guitar herself, preferring to leave the instrumental music-making solely in the quite capable hands of her husband-producer-co-songwriter-guitarist John Leventhal. The minimalist instrumental backing allowed for a rare and resonant intimacy in her performance, but also freed her to help accent the narratives of the songs with simple yet eloquent hand gestures that provided a visual focus that was both poetic and poignant.
Of course, Cash didn’t neglect her own songs, and gems such as “The World Unseen,” “God Is in the Roses” and the final encore of “House On the Lake” – all from “Black Cadillac,” her 2006 album that mourned the death of her parents – were particularly potent.
She celebrated her 56th birthday just a few days before the concert. And indeed Cash has never sounded better vocally, nor appeared more confident and at ease on stage as she did on Saturday evening.
Songwriter or song interpreter? Whichever path she chooses, the audience is the winner.
My other review at The Times Union
Excerpt from Michael Hochanadel’s review at The Daily Gazette: “The driving ‘Burn Down this Town’ and the rockabilly antique ‘Tennessee Flat Top Box’ had plenty of bounce, but didn’t overpower the tender optimism of ‘God is in the Roses.’ Cash’s loudest original ‘Seven Year Ache’ similarly carried into the quiet ‘500 Miles’ with no problem. Cash managed these contrasts with consummate musical ease, her voice bold or soothing, her diction precise but natural, unfussy. But her confidence and charm were even more crucial in this wide-ranging survey of duets. A useful guitarist, she usually strummed chords under Leventhal’s picked solos, but she used her hands to compelling effect with such perfectly modulated gestures that I almost hated to see her fill her hands with an instrument.”
ROSANNE CASH SET LIST
I’m Movin’ On
It Hasn’t Happened Yet
The World Unseen
Sea of Heartbreak
Long Black Veil
Girl From the North Country
Burn Down This Town
Tennessee Flat Top Box
God Is in the Roses
Seven Year Ache
500 Miles (with Leventhal on piano)
Dreams Are Not My Home
Heartaches by the Number
The Wheel (Cash solo)
House On the Lake