Johnny Cash

The Great Lost Performance

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John Carter Cash has been digging in the family vaults a lot in the 21st century. He's been -- rightfully -- hovering over his father's and his mother's recordings protectively. This concert by Johnny Cash with his family and band from 1990 follows up his last recording for Mercury (1989's Boom Chicka Boom) and precedes his collaboration with Rick Rubin on the American Recordings series. It was planned but went unreleased by Mercury at the time. Recorded at the ill-fated Paramount Theater in Asbury Park, NJ, what distinguishes this from other Cash live shows -- excepting, of course, the classics At Folsom Prison and At San Quentin -- is its pristine sound. It's warm, full of detail, and space. Musically, however, it feels like a rote Cash revue road date -- in places at least. Along with June, sisters Anita Carter and Helen Carter are in the backing chorus, and Lucy Clark offers backing and harmony vocals on a couple of cuts. One of them is the recorded debut of the song "What Is Man." Cash confirms it by introducing the tune as not only unrecorded, but previously unperformed. It is a gospel tune, and the duet with Clark gives it a beautiful old-time gospel feel, with the backing chorus and Cash and Clark up front, crooning and asking poignant questions from his favorite book, the Bible. Cash classics are aplenty here, with a stellar version of "Tennessee Flat Top Box," "Hey Porter," and "Five Feet High and Rising," as well as solid duets with June on "Jackson" and "The Wreck of the Old '97." The gospel numbers, such as "Life's Railway to Heaven" and "A Wonderful Time Up There," come off very well. "Ring of Fire" and "I Walk the Line" are here, but don't feel particularly inspired. They aren't substandard, just routine. Cash's vocal on "(Ghost) Riders in the Sky" is terrific, but the instrumental arrangement is cheesy. "Hey Porter" is killer and just crackles like an exposed live wire, and "Ragged Old Flag" is beautifully done as well. The plainspoken introductions to songs are plentiful here, though the longer stories are absent. And alas, there was no "Get Rhythm" in this performance. For the serious Cash fan, this one will be essential. For the historians it's a must; for those seeking a truly encompassing Cash recording, refer to the two previously mentioned.

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