Rosanne Cash & Ry Cooder performing a set of Johnny Cash songs together sounds like an imaginary collaborative set out of dreams, but for a series of five shows wrapping up last week at The Met Philadelphia, Ry convinced Rosanne to visit her father’s colossal catalog. During between-song banter, Rosanne admitted that it did take some convincing on Ry’s part. After all, she has spent her career establishing herself as a major name of her own, independent of her father’s towering legacy. Perhaps since she’s long succeeded in that goal, combined with a trust in Ry’s career-long dedication to reinterpreting material with freshness and respect, she agreed that it was finally the right time to sing these songs on stage.
Rosanne and Ry took the stage appropriately dressed in all black, accompanied by a similarly clad band that included Rosanne’s husband, John Leventhal on guitar and Ry’s son, Joachim Cooder on drums. Rosanne and Ry traded lead vocals over musical arrangements that alternated between familiar takes to wildly inventive reinterpretations. Rosanne is a tremendously talented singer, particularly gifted with elevating a song through her phrasing and emotion, as her father was. She delivered one powerful performance after another, highlighted by a particularly emotional performance on a dramatically slowed-down reinvention of ‘I Walk the Line’.
The band opened with Johnny’s 1964 hit, ‘Understand Your Man’, which, along with ‘Hardin Wouldn’t Run’, a deep cut from Cash’s seminal 1965 western concept album Ballads of the True West, were the most recent songs on the setlist. Johnny Cash, of course, remained phenomenally successful for the vast majority of his career, peaking again in the late sixties with Live at Folsom Prison and once again when teaming up with producer Rick Rubin in the final decade of his life. But the Cooder/Cash show consisted of predominantly 1950’s Sun Records material, with hits like ‘Hey Porter’ and ‘I Walk the Line’ mixed with lesser-known overlooked gems like ‘Pickin’ Time’ and ‘Home of the Blues’.
Prior to ‘Hey Porter’, Ry introduced the show’s surprise highlight: Luther Perkins‘ Fender guitar, which was played on all of those classic Sun hits, had made the trek out of storage back to the stage. While Cash’s trademark ‘Boom-Chicka-Boom’ sound rose in part out of necessity due to the band’s limited instrumental abilities, nothing has ever sounded more perfect than Perkins’ guitar recorded by Sam Phillips in the Sun studio that served as the birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll. The simple instrument’s magic returned in Cooder’s hands, who played it on three tunes that it originally graced in the studio: ‘Hey Porter’, ‘Get Rhythm’ and ‘Big River’. Each were performed faithfully, if with more extended dazzling guitar passages this time around.
‘Don’t Take Your Guns To Town’ and ‘Ring of Fire’ were equally impressive instrumentally, rendered near-unrecognizable (in the best way) with arrangements dominated by Cooder’s southwestern desert flair and leaving plenty of room for the guitarists to stretch out. ‘Don’t Take Your Guns to Town’ was particularly haunting with Cooder’s wizened storytelling and slide guitar. The song felt like a particularly important setlist inclusion given that Rosanne Cash is one of the few gun control advocates involved with the country music scene. ‘Ring of Fire’ closed the set with Cooder delivering the vocals in a menacing whisper between bursts of jagged guitar, before Rosanne thanked Ry for pushing her to revisit her father’s musical legacy and they returned for a fitting hymnal encore, performing one of Johnny’s traditional show-closing favorites, ‘I’ll Fly Away’.