Singer Johnny Cash was a true American original, straddling the lines between rock ‘n’ roll and country music, sin and salvation, darkness and light. With a rumbling, bass voice that only increased in gravitas as he got older — and, subsequently, more wracked with illness — Cash was never the biggest star in the world, or even the most noted and influential figure in his heyday. But his music loomed large because he seemed to emanate truth — he knew the suffering, despair and conflict of which he sang, and was thus an important bridge between musical genres past and future, as well as a reminder that music can be a great, underclass salve as much as a source of momentary uplift.
Both points-of-view get a compelling workout on Johnny Cash: Live at Montreux, a DVD document of his only appearance at the legendary Montreux Jazz Festival. Having just released the first volume of his acclaimed American Recordings latter day albums and hit Europe on tour, the Man in Black (it’s true — he’s in sweaty, monochromatic fashion here) swung by Montreux for a brisk concert stop featuring a number of tracks from his newest album alongside favorites from his early career, including “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” “Orange Blossom Special” and “San Quentin.”
In all, 19 songs get a workout on this disc, including hits “Ring of Fire,” “I Walk the Line,” “Bird on a Wire,” “Folsom Prison Blues” and “Redemption.” One of the surprises of the set, though, might be “Get Rhythm,” a little rockabilly number whose darkly solicitous bass line interestingly contradicts its call-to-healing chorus. Wife June Carter Cash joins her husband for two numbers later in the concert — “Jackson” and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” the latter of which also features son John Carter Cash. The singer’s banter between songs is humble and to the point, with a paucity of anecdotal ramblings. He takes the time to introduce his band mates, most of whom have been with him for many years (including drummer W.S. Holland), and introduces “I Walk the Line” with the charming, off-the-cuff utterance, “Here’s us in ’55.”
If there’s a complaint about Johnny Cash: Live at Montreux, it’s that so many of the songs are truncated — not because of trims or edits, but owing to the apparent limitations of the granted set time. (The disc runs just over an hour in total.) Ergo, hits like “Ring of Fire” and “I Walk the Line” are put through the paces alongside sit-down fare like “Tennessee Stud,” and many numbers tail off just when they should be kicking into an extra gear.
There are, alas, no supplemental disc extras on this Amaray-packaged
disc from Eagle Rock Entertainment. There is, however, a nice,
tri-fold-printed essay by Michael Heatley that gives an overview of
Cash’s career and prominence. Picture quality for concert recordings is usually dreadful, especially for material drawn from the pre-digital era. But Johnny Cash: Live at Montreux looks great, and additionally benefits from some solid direction. The lighting scheme and camera angles — all things having nothing to do with transfer per se, I realize — highlight the bathed-in-purple set, as well as Cash and his fellow musicians. Instead of just holding on one or two static shots, this concert disc gives viewers a dynamic, well-produced show, and it makes you appreciate even more the speck-free, full-frame presentation. There are limitations, of course, but on a song like “Big River” the directors get so tight in on Cash that you can see the individual lines of sweat forming on his focused face.
The disc is presented with three audio options — PCM Stereo, DTS and Dolby digital 5.1, and this is another slight problem. While the instrumentation is well-microphoned, Cash’s flirtation with the stationary mic means some moments drop down and/or out. While again a function of the original recording, it’s obvious that the source master wasn’t used to “sweeten” the mix here any. The DTS track probably sounds the best, with a more dynamic capturing of the bass and snare work on numbers like “Let the Train Blow the Whistle” and “San Quentin.”
Bottom line: For longtime fans of Cash or even neophytes looking for a brisk, latter-day offering of the Man in Black at the top of his game, this is a superb title, easily and enjoyably digestible in one sitting. Though it doesn’t offer the definitive versions of his most famous tunes, it showcases enough about what makes Cash special and unique to merit attention, and the appearance of June Carter Cash and son make it a winning family affair. B (Concert) B (Disc)