Opening night at the sold-out Universal Preservation Hall, Rosanne Cash echoed in her music the ambition of the civic-minded Saratogians who saved the 1871 church building — condemned in 2000 — from dusty oblivion.
On a gala Saturday night, fans in gowns and suits sat in pews alongside jeans and beards as Cash reached back in songs celebrating Civil War veterans among her family, also to tunes by her famous father. Her original songs map a “feminist journey in time and space” in novelistic lyrics of often funny, fierce fatalism — profound, powerful, in her strong, silvery voice.
Her opening song, “A Feather’s Not a Bird,” traced that arc from memory to motion, into a future; then “Sunken Lands” (about the Cash family’s life-saving 1935 resettlement in a New Deal program) honored the redemption of home and kin. “Etta’s Tune,” about the 65-year marriage of her father Johnny Cash’s longtime bassist, celebrated steady fidelity.
Her closing number, “Seven Year Ache,” the hit that launched her career apart from her famous father, mourned a fraying marriage. In 100 minutes on the UPH stage, surrounded by rapt audience on all four sides, Cash displayed a curator’s respect for her roots and creativity in making something new and honest. Husband-guitarist John Leventhal led with a light touch until he burned a big solo in “The Only Thing Worth Fighting For” from her newest release, “She Remembers Everything.”
Most songs cruised at mid- or slow tempos to let her words cut deep. Like “Fighting,” her newer songs tell hard truths about mortality, though “Not many Miles To Go” tempered loss that’s sure to come with hope; “fun with mortality,” she joked.
On the first night of a national tour, the band sounded sharp and mostly mellow, but brought the heat also. After Kevin Barry (brilliant on guitars and lap steel) burned in “Undiscovered Country,” Cash noted “he came to play;” they all did: John Korba, keyboards; Zev Katz, bass; and Dan Reiser, drums.
In an archival run with just Leventhal’s guitar, she cited her father’s famous list of 100 essential country songs. She gave “Long Black Veil” tragic poignancy, sang “Ode to Billy Joe” as a stark blues that brought many to their feet; then she and Leventhal brought the band back in the Gospel shuffle “Bury Me Beneath the Weeping Willow Tree,” learned, she said, from the Carter women on a tour with her father and Carl Perkins.
Then she changed up from sadness into Hank Snow’s mighty “Movin’ On.” Her own “She Remembers Everything” about “who we are before the damage is done,” maintained momentum, as did “When the Master Calls the Roll,” about heritage. She gazed as deeply into southern Gothic in her own “On Money Road” as she had in “Ode to Billy Joe,” before the set-closing bitter fire of “Seven Year Ache.”
Fittingly, beautifully, she encored with her father’s jaunty “Tennessee Flat Top Box,” with white-hot solos by Barry and Leventhal. Cash and her band set a high bar: this week, UPH presents “Sounds of the Hall” Wednesday with jazz groups Chuck Lamb and Friends and the Dylan Perillo Orchestra, comic Louie Anderson Thursday, jazz trumpeter Chris Botti Friday, “An Evening with The Celebrity Housewives” Saturday, the Marvelous Marquise Family Circus Sunday and the Capital Region Thomas Edison Music Hall of Fame Ceremony Monday.
Rosanne Cash’s Setlist at UPH
A Feather’s Not a Bird
The Sunken Lands
The Only Thing Worth Fighting For
The Undiscovered Country
Crossing to Jerusalem
Not Many Miles to Go
Particle and Wave
Long Black Veil
Ode to Billie Joe
Bury Me Beneath the Weeping Willow Tree
Movin’ On (substituted for Blue Moon)
She Remembers Everything
When the Master Calls the Roll
On Money Road
Tennessee Flat Top Box