Great shows can be anticipated. Your favorite musical artist puts out a new album and announces a tour. You buy the album and tickets for the show closest to your home and then proceed to wear the album out. Then you go to the show, you know almost every song, and the artist drops in a deep cut for the true fans like you. It’s an awesome evening that you’ll be talking about for years.
But the really, really great shows sneak up on you. Tickets for a show fall into your lap, or you agree to go see an artist you aren’t super familiar with because your friend invites you. Or you go see someone in an off kilter setting, expecting a good show, but probably a mail-it-in greatest hits set list with few surprises and even less spontaneity. But every now and then the artist in that unique setting let’s her guard down and shows that even an amazing singer-songwriter with legendary DNA and a Hall-of-Fame pedigree is a human being.
Those are the best shows.
Such was the case on Sunday afternoon when Rosanne Cash came to Red Wing’ s Sheldon Theatre for the Performing Arts. Accompanied by her husband, guitarist, producer and songwriting partner, John Leventhal, Cash delivered a two-hour set that was filled with both expected songs and surprising moments.
Opening the show with a healthy dose of songs from her Grammy Award winning album The River & The Thread, she proved to be in a good, even loquacious, mood.
“How great is this? A 3:00 show?” she said. “When we’re done we can go grab the early bird special for dinner and then hole up in the hotel with a chick flick.”
The material from the new album is very strong. Beginning with “Modern Blue,” and moving through more than half of the album, she took the time to enhance the songs with stories about their inspiration. More often than not, that included stories from her own life and family. “The Sunken Lands,” she explained was about the area of Arkansas where her father’s family settled during the Great Depression. “Etta’s Tune,” was for Marshall Grant, the bassist in her father’s famed backing band the The Tennessee Three, and his wife. “The Long Way Home,” is about connecting with the areas in the South where her family came from. A beautiful reading of Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billy Joe” was followed by the revelation that the image on the cover of The River & The Thread was taken on the famed Tallahatchie Bridge.
Cash was clearly relaxed throughout the show. The intimate setting and spare instrumentation allowed for some humorous moments. She started and stopped “September When it Comes” three different times, finally asking the audience to help her remember the lyrics that she had suddenly forgotten. After Leventhal spent a few minutes riffing on what Bruce Springsteen might be up to, Cash gave her husband a bemused look and said “Oh, it’s getting loose here on Sunday afternoon.”
The most poignant moment came during “When the Master Calls the Roll.” A song about her Civil War ancestors, she caught herself on the line “But can the Union be preserved,” and was crying by the end. Stepping back to the microphone, she said simply “Pray the Union can be preserved,” before taking a couple moments to collect herself. Shortly thereafter she thanked the audience, which showed her nothing but support and adoration all afternoon, for their patience saying that her spirits had been lifted.
Cash showed heart, strength, honesty and good humor throughout the two hour set. At 61, and with thirty-five years of life on the road behind her, she still sings with a voice that is rich and strong as ever. Leventhal’s guitar and stage sense is all the accompaniment she requires to deliver a top notch performance. And while it seemed almost effortless for her, she connected with the audience on a rare level. If this is the way Rosanne Cash always plays at 3 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon, she should never play at any other time again.
Rich Larson is publisher and editor of SouthernMinn Scene. Contact him at email@example.com