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Live at San Quentin (Legacy Edition) – Johnny Cash

Columbia/Legacy 82876759142

I know what some of you are thinking right now. Ho-hum, another re-release/repackage of another classic album just to draw a little more out of my bank account. I can’t blame you. I’m getting tired of record companies releasing an album and then proceeding to put out a better version a short time later. And then there’s Elvis Costello who seems to be daring his devoted to purchase the same music plus some unearthed material for a fifth time! But you’d be doing yourself a favor to add this two CD/one DVD Legacy Edition of Johnny Cash at San Quentin, and that goes for those who already have the original or even the expanded edition that came out 2000.

Two things make this worthwhile. The full show with performances from those other than Cash presents a full account of that event at San Quentin Prison on February 24th, 1969 with 13 unreleased tracks. Listening to Carl Perkins, the Statler Brothers and the Carter Family doesn’t chip away at Cash’s time in the spotlight. It’s not as if their contributions negatively impact the overall show. In fact, with the additions, we’re able to grasp the connection of players from beginning to end, allowing the finale with everyone present, including the Tennessee Three, to offer a more satisfying conclusion. The other delight here is the 60-minute documentary shot for British television at the time. Together, it makes Live at San Quentin a vital historical document, a peak inside that prison and a glimpse of Cash’s personality — a superstar at his commercial peak in sync with a crowd that was in the process of paying its due to society.

It wouldn’t surprise me that the manner in which the Johnny Cash Show unfolds — a number by Perkins and the Statler Brothers, a couple from the Carter Family, followed by Cash and then re-appearances by the other artists — became a direct influence to Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue six years later. A certain nervous energy can be heard during some of those early numbers. It’s only when Cash enters, the calming presence on this journey, that the concert is injected with a loose atmosphere.

Of course, a part of that comes about through the immediate kinship between Cash and the audience — his knowing between song banter, mix of hits (“Big River” “I Walk the Line”), hymns (“He Turned the Water Into Wine”) and jail-related material (“Folsom Prison Blues” “Starkville City Jail”). Listening here gives further understanding to how Cash became a punk rock icon, particularly to Mike Ness of Social Distortion, who helped in the rejuvenation of Cash’s status when his band covered “Ring Of Fire.” Besides the infamous photo of Cash flipping the bird, which rests inside the 40-page booklet, his onstage attitude here is pure rebel. Mentioning to his captive audience that the television crew wanted him to perform a certain way for better filming, he basically tells the filmmakers to stuff it, concluding that the performers are there for the prisoners not the cameras.

That disregard for the establishment also shines in what he chooses to play. As the Culture War plays out in the streets and homes across the country, Cash shows his attention and appreciation to what was happening around him. He covers the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Darlin’ Companion,” and on the second disc, “Wanted Man,” written by Bob Dylan. Like his ability to play both sides during the performance uniting with the prisoners without alienating the guards Live at San Quentin works, as it always has, on Cash’s charisma to be an Everyman who sings of spiritual rebirth while offering a rock n’ roll-like fuck you.

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