He was one of the most instantly recognized performers in the world. From the clothes he wore to that incredibly distinct voice, there was little chance that anyone was going to either confuse him with someone else or not recognize him when he got on stage. But that never stopped him from opening his show every night with the same four words: "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash".
I'm sure by now there are few people who don't know the story of the Man In Black; his struggles to overcome his personal demons, his love for the woman who would become his second wife — June Carter Cash, and his astounding ability to turn almost any song ever written into his own.
In spite of being more well known for longer than probably any other musician, the first words out of his mouth, save for song lyrics, were always the same. Cash delivered them with a huge grin and a laugh, especially if he'd opened with one of his signature tunes before he said hello. It was part of the show and could never be changed, Johnny letting his voice drop down to it's deepest register and rumbling out those four magic words that let the world know he was still standing and ready to go another round.
It had been years since I'd seen Johnny Cash perform before I saw the biographical movie, Walk The Line, and the physical traits that Joaquin Phoenix demonstrated during the performance scenes seemed to border on caricature. But watching New West Records' release of Johnny Cash Live From Austin TX put that physicality into perspective.
Johnny Cash was much more physically imposing than Mr. Phoenix and when he hunched his head back down into his shoulders, it was like he was preparing to counter punch an opponent in the boxing ring or a bull setting himself up for that charge across the arena to take out the matador. But Johnny wasn't fighting any individual, he was standing up to those things he saw wrong with the world.
He wasn't wearing black as a symbol of being cool or tough but as mourning for all the people who life had dealt raw deals. His songs and music were his way of fighting back and making his declaration to the world he wasn't about to back down from the good fight. Perhaps that "Hello I'm Johnny Cash" at the beginning of each show was his throwing down the gauntlet, letting the world of hard times and misery know that here was a champion that was going to fight back and his songs were his weapons.
Johnny Cash Live From Austin TX is another of New West Records' re-mastered releases from the television show Austin City Limits. This was originally broadcast in 1987 and it shows off the advantages of a concert specifically shot for television over the larger venue performances. The most significant difference is the degree of intimacy that the televised showing has to offer.
It's true there are now cameras that can bring you right on stage with the performer even if the concert is in a 100,000-seat stadium, but intimacy requires there to be rapport of some kind with somebody. It's kind of hard for a performer to develop any sort of relationship with people in those large venue settings. It's a far easier task to accomplish when you're performing in a television studio.
Watching this DVD, it truly felt that Johnny and his band were giving a command performance for both his studio audience and those of us at home. Each song was being sung especially for an individual listener and you could feel the intensity of emotion and depth of his caring, in a way I've never felt from a concert disc before.
It was being able to watch Johnny Cash with such detail that made me realize that Mr. Phoenix had been doing his best to emulate. When I was able to feel the concentration and passion that Mr. Cash was bringing to each song; he would draw back into himself during somebody else's solo, then uncoil like a snake to strike out with the next lyric and press home its point; the actor's characterization made far more sense.
Whether a highly personal song like "I'll Go Somewhere And Sing My Songs Again" or his cover of John Prine's tale of the wounded veteran "Sam Stone", almost every song is delivered with that fighting spirit and defiance. A notable exception was his duet with his wife June Carter Cash, "Where Did We Go Right" which has just the right combination of humour and sincerity to make it a truly beautiful affirmation of their love.
Again the intimacy of a televised concert increases the impact of the performance by allowing us to witness the spontaneous gestures of affection between the couple. Their hands would continually be searching out each other's, like two young lovers still in the first blush of passion for each other. Moments like these are when it is possible to believe somebody when they say the words "the magic of television".
Johnny Cash Live From Austin TX is an opportunity to see one of the great singer-songwriters of our time in a concert situation unlike any other. I don't know why but the sound quality was far superior on this disc than the other one in this series that I've reviewed (Kris Kristofferson), even though I was unable to use the 5.1 surround sound because it is DTS only.
If you had ever wanted to spend some quality time with Johnny Cash listening to him perform in the intimacy of a small club and never had the chance, than the next best thing is to get a copy of Johnny Cash Live From Austin TX. Owning this disc is too good an opportunity for any Johnny Cash fan to let slip away and will make an amazing addition to any Cash collection.