Friday, October 13, 2023

The View On Pop Culture: Johnny Cash, Elvis Costello, Peter Case, Bonnaroo Music Festival (2002)

Johnny Cash's American IV

Every year, there are lots of records that fall by the wayside, neglected by critics (or maybe just this critic), overlooked by listeners, and struggling to find a place in music history. Just because the following releases didn’t show up in this year’s Village Voice critic’s poll doesn’t mean that they don’t deserve space on your CD shelf.

When Nashville turned its back on Johnny Cash a few years ago, American Records mastermind Rick Rubin alone recognized the “Man In Black” as a true musical treasure. Pairing Cash with contemporary songs and musicians, the resulting folk/rock albums have become significant additions to Cash’s already considerable legacy. American IV: The Man Comes Around (Lost Highway/American Records) continues the streak. Backed by talents like Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench of the Heartbreakers and bluegrass legend Randy Scruggs, Cash tackles songs by Trent Reznor, Paul Simon, Martin Gore and, of course, Hank Williams as well as originals like the revelatory title cut and the classic “Tear Stained Letter.” Although Cash’s magnificent baritone has weakened somewhat through the years, when he jumps into the antique “Streets of Laredo” you can hear the hard years melt away. Cash is one of the true giants of American music and thanks to Rubin – best known as a rap and heavy metal producer – Cash’s last years in the saddle will be as important and memorable as those first songs he recorded for Sun Records fifty years ago.

Elvis Costello's Cruel Smile
Elvis Costello
’s first studio album in seven years, When I Was Cruel (Island Records), received so much (well-deserved) hype that many overlooked this wonderful, second CD that was released to coincide with the artist’s 2002 US tour. A collection of rarities, alternate takes and live tracks, Cruel Smile (Island Records) is the perfect addition to any Costello fanatic’s collection. Excellent live performances of “Spooky Girlfriend,” “Almost Blue” and “15 Petals” are complimented by cool, hard-to-find Japanese single versions of “Smile” and a wicked alternate take on “When I Was Cruel.” So-called “Imposter” remixes of “Revolution Doll” and the manic “Peroxide Side” are rhythmic, dark-hued rockers, acid-drenched blends of lyrical bile and muscular instrumentation. Aimed towards the collector’s market, pop aficionados would nevertheless also enjoy Cruel Smile, the collection a fine showcase for Costello’s black humor and immense musical talents. Don’t forget to pick up your Rhino Records reissues of vintage Costello albums like Armed Forces, Spike, and Imperial Bedroom, each two-CD set loaded with outtakes and rarities and offering extensive liner notes, all at a single disc price. Elvis is king!

As frontman of early ‘80s new wave popsters the Plimsouls, Peter Case created one perfect, shining musical moment in the song “A Million Miles Away,” no mean feat for any artist. The Plimsouls faded into rock ‘n’ roll history, but Case is still here, flying solo, pigeonholed as a folkie and relegated to the fringes of alt-culture. ‘Tis unfair and incorrect, as even a casual listen to Beeline (Vanguard Records) proves Case to be an artist of some depth and musical integrity. A kaleidoscope of styles with punchy performances, Beeline is a solid and entertaining collection of songs. Sure, there’s a lot of folk influence here – witness the tender “I Hear Your Voice” or “Gone,” a delightful road song. But Case also exhibits impressive fluency in the language of the blues on “Evening Raga,” hits a funky groove on “Something’s Coming” and rocks with the rootsy “First Light.” Case delivers his material with a welcome lack of pretension and no small amount of intelligence. While my critical colleagues were championing Beck’s latest effort as a brilliant exercise in the folk/rock genre, this humble scribe was listening to the real deal, Peter Case’s Beeline.

Live From Bonnaroo Music Festival 2002
It took ‘em a couple of years to get the recipe just right (anybody remember the Itchycoo fiasco?), but the promoters of last June’s Bonnaroo Music Festival hit a bull’s eye with an inspired line-up that ranged from jam bands and blues-rockers to bluegrass pickers and gospel artists. Held in the rural farming community of Manchester, Tennessee about an hour south of Nashville, Bonnaroo attracted about 70,000 rockers for three days of mighty fine music. Live From Bonnaroo Music Festival 2002 (Sanctuary Records) captures some of the highlights of the event on a highly recommended two-CD set. Much like the festival itself, this set presents a widely diverse collection of artists, and there are plenty of hot tracks to satisfy the desire of any music lover.

Widespread Panic are joined by gospel great Dottie Peoples on the band’s “Tallboy” while North Mississippi All-Stars axeman Luther Dickinson joins Robert Randolph and the Family Band on their “Peekaboo.” North Mississippi’s favorite sons deliver their own scorching “Sugartown” while bluegrass legends the Del McCoury Band knock out a red-hot performance of “Rain & Snow.” Former Primus frontman Les Claypool with his Frog Brigade band render a solid reading of Jethro Tull’s “Locomotive Breath” and the Blind Boys Of Alabama close out the album with the amazing “Amazing Grace.” From chart-toppers like Norah Jones and Jack Johnson and jam bands like moe, Gov’t Mule and Phish’s Trey Anastasio, Live From Bonnaroo Music Festival 2002 does a great job in documenting the spectrum of styles offered to fans out in the Tennessee countryside. (View From The Hill, November 2022)

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