By Rod Peck
Johnny Cash was my first musical hero. At about age 4 or 5, I would come to the breakfast table and tell my mom and sister, in the deepest voice I could muster, “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.” To this day, I’ll be talking about the Man In Black and someone will ask me “Do you like Rosanne?” to which I’ve always responded, “Well, I like her a lot as a person, but I’m only a minor fan of her music.” All of that changed with her Feb. 8 appearance at this area’s finest performing-arts venue, the University of Iowa’s Hancher Auditorium.
Terri and I got to downtown Iowa City a little after 5 p.m. and sought out the burger-and-beer joint “Short’s Burgers & Shine,” located at 18 S. Clinton St., just across from the University’s fabled Pentacrest. Short’s is the kind of place I love to find, a little hole in the wall with good food and ambience galore. Short’s menu features nearly 20 different burger selections, all made from locally grown beef, and a roster of 30 craft beers on tap, all brewed in Iowa. After a delicious burger, we moved a few doors down to Molly’s Cupcakes for a tasty dessert before heading across campus for the show.
Hancher is an awe-inspiring display of modern architectural beauty. Upon our arrival, glimpsing this multi-story building with its massive areas of glass twinkling in the night was breathtaking. The flood of ’08 caused the original building’s closure, but Hancher finally reopened in September of 2016. Terri and I arrived early to meet some friends at Hancher’s simple, yet elegant, Stanley Café for some socializing and people-watching before making it to our seats for the 7:30 show time. Sitting in the auditorium literally filled us with a sense of child-like wonder as we craned our necks to take it all in, amazed at the features. I’ve been to many a concert hall in my day, and this place is special, both visually, with its excellent sight lines and lighting capabilities, as well as sonically, with its perfect acoustics and state-of-the-art sound system.
Ms. Cash’s band came onstage just before she did, allowing her a bit of an entrance. Without additional fanfare, she launched right into “A Feather’s Not A Bird,” which won Grammys in 2014 for both the Best American Roots Song and Performance in addition to being the opening track from the Best Americana Album of that year, The River & The Thread. After a few songs from that release, Ms. Cash changed direction and performed several from her most-recent album, 2018’s “She Remembers Everything,” which were also well received.
Ms. Cash’s husband of 25 years, John Leventhal, a Grammy-winning musician, songwriter and producer in his own right, serves as band director and guitarist. Multi-instrumentalist Kevin Barry, who is from Boston and had only gotten to the auditorium just in time for the show due to an earlier cancelled flight, also played guitar as well as lap steel. Matt Beck spent most of the show providing color from behind his electric keyboard setup, but the times he moved over to the grand piano provided some of the evening’s
instrumental highlights. Bassist Zev Katz and drummer Dan Rieser capably filled out the group’s sound. Each musician played with an effortless, admirable grace, and while Ms. Cash’s music doesn’t demand virtuosity from any individual, there was always the feeling that these fellows had plenty in reserve should they be called upon to deliver.
One part of the show I particularly enjoyed was that Ms. Cash and Mr. Leventhal gave the other musicians a break for a three-song set performed by just the two of them. I had known the story of how Ms. Cash’s father had once given her a list of 100 essential Country songs that was the source of her 2010 album “The List.” Still, it did my heart good to hear her tell it in person before singing the Lefty Frizzell standard “Long Black Veil,” which was followed by a cover of Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode To Billy Joe.” As my greatest passion is the history of American music, I was already greatly enjoying this set when Ms. Cash shared how when she was still riding her father’s tour bus as a teenager, she got to spend time with the Carter Family women, without mentioning that they were her stepfamily. Naturally, this led to a fantastic performance of the Carter standard “Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow Tree” that caused Terri to hand me a Kleenex before it was over.
Besides enjoying the music itself, I was impressed with how Ms. Cash’s presentation hit on all the right notes in several ways. For instance, singer-songwriters are often known for being over-indulgent with their between-song patter, whereas Ms. Cash kept all her song introductions to just the right length. Not a single time did I mutter to myself, “Just shut up and sing the song.” Also, the adult children of iconic musicians always face a dilemma of how to cope with their famous parents’ shadow, whether onstage or on record. Ms. Cash dealt with this issue in as classy a way as possible. She could have gone for some cheap applause by using her father’s name unnecessarily, but she understands that we all know that anyway and don’t need to be told, referring to him only when needed as “my father.” It’s also worth noting that the Johnny Cash’s daughter wore a black suit onstage.
One thing Terri and I both noticed about the sophisticated Hancher crowd is that while they were certainly attentive to and appreciative of the musicians onstage, they were also somewhat reserved, in the sense that there was not much audience participation during the songs. No hand-clapping, head-bobbing or singing along from this crowd. This is not a criticism, merely an observation, but I did feel that if I had jumped up and yelled “wooohooo!” at the top of my lungs for any song I was excited to hear, it would have been inappropriate in this setting. Hancher is for listening, and I’m fine with that.