Rosanne Cash review: Songs of the South at new SFJazz digs
April 11, 2014
The Woman in Black was in a jazzy mood Thursday night as she began a four-night run in San Francisco, amused by the idea of bringing roots music and country twang to SFJazz.
Backed by a crack five-piece ensemble led by her husband, guitarist John Leventhal, Rosanne Cash was performing for the first time at the new SFJazz Civic Center digs. It didn’t take long for Johnny’s daughter to make herself at home.
It’s a long way from Memphis, where she was born, and a long way from Southern California, where she grew up. But Cash was all about the American South on Thursday, especially during the first half of her perfectly programmed two-hour set, as she performed, in order, all 11 songs from her often plaintive new album, “The River & the Thread.”
Whether on page or stage, Cash is a superb storyteller, something that was clearly evident even in the spoken-word introductions to the album’s songs, which were the result of a meandering road trip that she and Leventhal took to explore the truth and mythology of the South.
Before drifting into “Etta’s Tune,” Cash held the nearly sold-out house in thrall as she spoke about Marshall Grant, the bass player for her dad’s duo, the Tennessee Two. Grant and his wife, Etta, were married for 65 years before he died in 2011 - something remarkable for a touring musician, Cash deadpanned. And each morning, the first thing they said to each other was, “What’s the temperature, darling?”
She had the audience in the palm of her hand before she sang that phrase to launch into the homage to enduring love.
Cash was unapologetic about what she called the “old-fashioned” notion of doing a concept album in the first place and then performing it in its entirety, but there was also a concept for Thursday’s show. “The River & the Thread” songs laid the first-act groundwork before Cash, Leventhal and the band cut loose in the second half, opening with Hank Snow’s “I’m Movin’ On.”
That song is from her previous album, “The List,” comprising songs from a list of what her dad considered the eternal classics of country music. “Movin’ On” also displayed how supple Cash’s voice remains now that she has a daughter who’s older than she was when she had her early hits. Whether she’s doing a kick-ass cover of Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe” or the dark anthem “Motherless Children” from “The List,” she swoops down to a low register with astonishing ease.
As an artist and songwriter, Cash has grown more introspective since early hits such as “Blue Moon With a Heartache” and “Seven Year Ache,” both of which she performed in the show’s second half, along with the rollicking “Tennessee Flat Top Box.”
It may not always help to have your husband as your music director, but it does for Cash, because Leventhal’s guitar work is as much a star of the show as Cash is. He’s also her songwriting partner, but not exclusively: For “When the Master Calls the Roll,” originally written for Emmylou Harris, Leventhal and Cash teamed up with her ex-husband, Rodney Crowell. It was, as she deadpanned, “very evolved.”
Cash and her band (second guitarist Kevin Barry, Glenn Patscha on keyboards, Zev Katz on bass and Dan Rieser on drum) were having fun on Thursday, as was the audience (the remaining shows are sold out). She even paused to say how grateful she was not to have seen the light of a single BlackBerry in the audience all night long.
To which some in the audience were probably saying, “What’s a BlackBerry?”
David Wiegand is The San Francisco Chronicle’s executive features editor and TV critic. E-mail: email@example.com Twitter:@WaitWhat_TV