Johnny Cash didn't make any official live recordings during his classic '50s years, but leave it to Bear Family Records to come up with the next best thing and a lot more: Cash's complete performances from a pair of shows from television's Town Hall Party (1952-1961) on August 15, 1958, and August 8, 1959, respectively, on a 70-minute DVD program formatted for playback on American machines. The 1958 appearance is of special interest, as it offers Cash the same week that he officially signed with Columbia Records; thus, a lot of the material that he does derives from his Sun Records repertory, including "Get Rhythm," "I Walk the Line," "Give My Love to Rose," and "You're the Nearest Thing to Heaven," but he does perform his first Columbia single, "All Over Again," along with "Don't Take Your Guns to Town," "Frankie's Man Johnny," "It Was Jesus," and "Suppertime," that he'd previously recorded for the label. Cash, performing with the Tennessee Two (i.e., Luther Perkins and Marshall Grant), is so unassuming between the songs, he almost disappears as a personality, and then he starts to sing and the effect is spellbinding as the voice and the performance become larger than life. Perkins' lead playing is even more understated than Cash's between-song persona, and the band doesn't move much, but they don't have to, either. The 1959 show presents Cash in a looser performance, doing "Guess Things Happen That Way," "Five Feet High and Rising," "I Got Stripes," "Big River," and other current Columbia sides of the period, plus classics like "Folsom Prison Blues" and "I Walk the Line," all with a slightly larger band, including piano and drums; the group is also a bit more lively on-stage than in their earlier appearance, though Luther Perkins is still a stone-faced persona to rival Buster Keaton in his deadpan presence. The finale of the performance includes Cash's comic Elvis Presley-style impersonation in a performance of "Heartbreak Hotel." The quality of the video is very good for the period, a black-and-white image derived from clean kinescope masters (literally a film of a live broadcast, shot right off of a television screen during a telecast) that's very nicely transferred and with excellent sound. The annotation is also very thorough and is accompanied by a good array of photographs. The disc opens automatically to a simple menu listing each song.
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AllMusic Review by Bruce Eder