The Man in Black wore black, and the rest of the night was equally surprising. That's not to say that Johnny Cash was bad. The Mother Hips, who opened the show with a countrified set that sounded about as genuine as a pair of plastic cowboy boots, were bad. His wife, June Carter, was bad. The crowd was bad. Johnny Cash, however, wasn't bad -- just predictable.
Predictable, as in opening with "Folsom Prison Blues," a song that Cash, 64, originally recorded for Sun in 1956 and which finally charted more than a decade later when he released it on the live album recorded at that gray institution.
At the Fillmore performance, Cash played seven songs (including "I Walk the Line," "I Still Miss Someone," and "San Quentin") from the famous reissue CD that combines the Folsom record with another live set at San Quentin. Sure, this double Folsom disc is probably one of the best live recordings ever made; that point where Cash sings "I shot a man in Reno/ Just to watch him die" and the convicts go absolutely nuts is an unnerving symbiotic moment between audience and performer. But here we are, nearly 30 years later, expecting a musician as ambitious and accomplished as Cash to find new moments of transcendence.
Like the convicts, the crowd at the Fillmore went ape for the same vicious line. Which is kind of disturbing. Not as disturbing as cheering to the tragic "Ballad of Ira Hayes," a song about a valorous American Indian veteran who dies piss-drunk in a few inches of mud. Troublesome, but not surprising, considering the legions of Budweiser-swilling frat boys who, in the lobby before the show, kept shouting, "Johnny fucking Cash," and who kept up similar obnoxious prattle throughout the performance, particularly during quiet ballads from the new record like "Meet Me in Heaven" and the title track, "Unchained."
Cash is, of course, a legend. He's sold more than 50 million records since he first recorded "Cry! Cry! Cry!" at Sun Studios in 1955. He and Hank Williams are the only musicians inducted to both the Rock and Roll and Country Music Halls of Fame. This is a man who's written more than 1,500 songs; the fact that he sang only a dozen or so hits, plus material from the current release he's showcasing, was a sad disappointment.
Sadder still is the marketing scheme that's tried to paint Cash a new color-by-numbers portrait of outlaw cool. In 1990, Billboard published a special issue celebrating Cash's 35-year career. In it, one record exec marveled that at a recent Cash show, college radio programmers begged for comp tickets. "These are blue-haired punks. ... This is obviously going to give us a marketing angle at some point," he said.
Enter American Recordings' Rick Rubin. Two years ago, he recorded Cash solo on sparse, mean songs and used the man's bad-boy reputation -- and a grainy black-and-white music video starring Kate Moss -- to merchandise the songs to those blue-haired punks. True, Cash was trashing hotel rooms while Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, and the Who were collectively popping pubescent zits. Over the years the man's eaten more speed and questionable pharmaceuticals than a biker gang. But for decades, he's hardly been an outlaw. Cash and the original Tennessee Three trademarked the black uniforms because it was the best color for playing churches. And Cash once produced Gospel Road, a film about the New Testament distributed by the very uncool Billy Graham.
I didn't see any blue hair at the Fillmore show, but two songs off Unchained, Soundgarden's "Rusty Cage" and Beck's "Rowboat," seemed well-received by a knowing crowd. Duets between Cash and Carter on "Jackson" and "If I Were a Carpenter" were also accepted with veneration. But then Cash left the stage to Carter. Halfway through her 25-minute solo set the crowd lost interest, and for good reason. Between songs, Carter rambled about her family's almighty position in the annals of country music. While performing, she was all teeth and rhinestones -- a hammy camp that would have played well in Branson, Mo., but that stilted a show still desperately waiting to depart from Nostalgia Station.
Cash came back with two harmonicas for a stellar "Orange Blossom Special," and the solid Tennessee Three (guitarist Bob Wootton, stand-up bassist Dave Rowe, and drummer W.S. Holland -- plus pianist Earl Poole Ball) chugged behind him with a bass-heavy rumble. A few more songs and Cash closed the evening with his 1969 hit "A Boy Named Sue" -- a Shel Silverstein-penned novelty tune that Cash admitted he was sick of playing more than 10 years ago. The crowd screamed their windpipes out, but there was no encore -- probably the coolest move of the entire show.