Waiting for Rosanne Cash. Photo by Barbara Guarino Lester.
In the middle of telling the audience about the “race music” of Memphis’s storied radio station WDIA, Rosanne Cash interrupted herself to say (I’m going from memory), “I can’t believe I’m talking about WDIA in Carnegie Hall!” Talk about storied—there she was on one of the most revered stages on the planet (Carnegie is celebrating its 125th anniversary), re-creating live her latest album, The River & the Thread. That Grammy-winning record too is saturated in history—the musical history of the South, wrapped around its social and political past, its swamps and delta and “sunken lands.”
Backdrop photo for the song "50,000 Watts."
With cotton fields, maps, trains, and other relevant images variously projected on the back wall, Cash—along with her musical director (and husband), John Leventhal, who co-wrote The River’s songs with her, and a fantastic band—worked her way through a vivid, ambitious, sometimes dark album, starting with the hopeful “A Feather’s Not a Bird” and ending with the poignant “Money Road,” with (as she explained) its ghosts of Emmett Till and bluesmen like B. B. King.
The poised and reflective Cash (aside from her many songs, she’s written fiction and a memoir) introduced each song, sometimes while the band riffed behind her. Besides being informative, she was very funny: for “Tell Heaven,” she explained that she had wanted to write a Gospel song “for agnostics,” which, judging by the knowing laughter, struck a chord with the NYC crowd.
Wearing a long gold-and-black fitted jacket over black pants, Cash looked both elegant and glamorous. (I didn’t remember her having red hair, but judging by The River’s cover and a T-shirt in the Carnegie gift shop, it now appears to be a signature trait.) Though she’s got some moves, with and without her guitar, the singer was self-possessed to the point of—occasionally—lacking a certain excitement; however, she was so affected when singing about her Civil War ancestors, in “When the Master Calls the Roll,” that she appeared on the verge of tears.
After intermission, Cash was able to let go of the exquisite weight of her southern heritage, and things got a little looser, with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy joining in on a couple of tunes, including her inevitable ending number, “Seven Year Ache,” which, she noted, he once covered. It’s a great song, as is the other original she did, “Blue Moon with Heartache” (cool title). I would have liked to have heard more of her own compositions—"I'll Change for You" as a duet with Tweedy?—but the choice of covers was interesting and of a piece with her musical lineage (a couple were from The List, her recording of a group of songs her dad considered superlative). The standout was Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe,” with its beautiful, eerie melody and mysterious narrative—which, as Rolling Stone recently pointed out, Gentry has never explained. Cash’s rich voice (which easily accommodates a sob or growl), coming through resonantly with the famous Carnegie acoustics, and expressive interpretation suited it perfectly.
To paraphrase a line from “A Feather’s Not a Bird,” a river runs through her, and Cash took us along on her evocative, poetic, deeply personal journey.
A light-bathed Rosanne Cash fields a standing ovation.