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Johnny Cash
At Madison Square Garden

Review By Steven Stone
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Johnny Cash At Madison Square Garden

CD Number: Columbia/Legacy CK 86808


  The good folks at Columbia Records have deemed 2002 to be "The Year of Johnny Cash." In celebration of this auspicious annum they have been releasing re-mastered versions of his entire back catalog. By and large this flood of old recordings has done little to improve Cash's reputation for uneven studio work. Just because throwaway sessions such as "Johnny Cash Sings Ballads of the True West" and "Silver" sound better, doesn't improve them musically. But among these old recordings, many of which would be better left unrediscovered, appears a gem - Johnny Cash At Madison Square Garden. At last, on one recording, we can hear for ourselves why Johnny Cash is indeed a national treasure.

What makes Johnny Cash At Madison Square Garden so much better than most of his other recorded output? It captures what Johnny Cash does best – play music live in a direct unadorned manner. No extra string parts, layered mixes, trendy arrangements, or added sweetening dilutes his music on Johnny Cash At Madison Square Garden. Instead we have twenty-five songs delivered fresh, hot, and steaming from the Man himself. It doesn't hurt that his regular touring band is populated by the likes of W.S. Holland on drums, Bob Wooten and Carl Perkins on electric guitars, and the Statler brothers and Carter family on background vocals. Not only is his band made up of seasoned pros, but also they have played with Cash for many years. The results can be heard in this live set, taken from just one night. His ensemble has a loose tightness that only comes from playing countless dates on the road together. They know what Johnny will do next, often times seemingly before he does himself.

The format for this concert is a cross between a slick musical review and an old-fashioned song-pull, where singers just do whatever catches their fancy. Beginning with "Big River" Cash works his way through "Five Feet High and Rising", "I Still Miss Someone", "Long Black Veil", "Folsom River Blues", "A Boy Named Sue" "Cocaine Blues", "Ballad of Ira Hayes", and "Were You There When They Crucified my Lord." During the show Cash gives his sidemen a chance to shine as well. Carl Perkins does a cameo spot on "Blue Suede Shoes," the Statler brothers perform "Flowers on the Wall," and Mother Maybell Carter sings her classic  "Wildwood Flower."

For folks, especially younger folks, who have made an effort to get into Johnny Cash and come away wondering why people think he is so great, Johnny Cash At Madison Square Garden goes a long way toward showing why he's special. If you want only one Johnny Cash recording, this is the one to own.




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