Music review: Rosanne Cash at the Birchmere

SONGSTRESS: Cash awed the Birchmere with her 90-minute set.
SONGSTRESS: Cash awed the Birchmere with her 90-minute set. (Library Of Congress)
Friday, December 4, 2009

Rosanne Cash has gotten back to basics. Cash, who appeared Wednesday at the Birchmere backed only by John Leventhal on guitar, was a leader of the pack of brainy, new-agey female songwriters (alongside Mary Chapin Carpenter and Shawn Colvin) that attracted large folk, alternative and pop audiences in the late 1980s and 1990s. But she's now promoting "The List," a CD of covers derived from what she described as "an actual list of 100 essential country songs" compiled by her father, Johnny Cash, when she was 18 years old.

Rosanne is now 54. Her dad's taste in tunes stands the test of time, and her always lovely voice has aged with amazing grace. So the Birchmere crowd sat in silent awe for 90 minutes while taking in somber, spare versions of Hedy West's "500 Miles," Harlan Howard's "Heartaches by the Number" and "Long Black Veil," the murder-mystery song made famous 50 years ago by Lefty Frizzell and often sung by her father. (Rosanne stuck with Frizzell's lyrics, so "I was in the arms of my best friend's wife," made for a more ear-catching alibi coming from her rather than from the Man in Black.) Leventhal, who doubles as Cash's producer and triples as her husband of 13 years, added layers of beautiful darkness by picking licks soaked in reverb and tremolo.

Cash occasionally acknowledged her introspective past, as with "The World Unseen," which had her crooning "I will look for you in morphine and in dreams/I will look for you in the rhythm of my bloodstream." There ain't a couplet like that on Daddy's hit list.

-- Dave McKenna

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