The compelling concert Rosanne Cash uncorked at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall on Wednesday belied Thomas Wolfe’s warning that you can’t go home again.
With husband/producer/co-writer/guitarist John Leventhal by her side, Cash returned to the South of her birth recently, inspiring the song cycle “The River and the Thread” that dominated Wednesday’s show.
“Modern Blue,” their first tune as the near-capacity crowd kept arriving and doffing their coats, traced a journey from Barcelona to Memphis, birthplace and musical source of our most cosmopolitan country artist. She sketched precise geo-cultural coordinates while introducing “The Sunken Lands,” dedicated to her grandmother, “the South of Robert Johnson, William Faulkner and my family.” She then wove together these strands in at-times bluesy, always literate and deeply rooted music.
After the tender “Etta’s Tune” about the long marriage of her father Johnny’s first bassist and the quiet insistence of her claim to his heritage in “A Feather’s Not a Bird,” Cash nailed that claim with a fervent “Long Black Veil,” setting aside her guitar to play the song with her hands as well as sing it.
She said she and Leventhal were still finding their way through duets of “The River and the Thread” songs, recorded with a band. Settling into older songs they’ve played as a duo for years; from “Black Cadillac” (’06), “The List” (’09) or older; their confidence and sense of play rose, lifting the music.
Leventhal started soloing with the lilting “Motherless Children,” Cash started putting happy body language on the tunes and after the gently rocking “Dreams Are Not My Home,” proclaimed, “This is a fun night!”
Then, she made a remarkable emotional detour into “Ode to Billie Jo” about the South at its spookiest and most mysterious. Stunning! But then she joked about a backstage (at Carnegie Hall) chat with Bill Clinton about the tune.
Effortlessly toggling between glee and gravitas, they soft-rocked “I’m Movin’ On,” intoned the gospel-for-atheists hymn “Tell Heaven,” celebrated radio with “50,000 Watts,” compressed the shame and strength of the South in “Out on Money Road” and dove deep into family history in “When the Master Calls the Roll” — co-written, Cash marveled, with both ex Rodney Crowell and husband Leventhal. This had an up-hollow Celtic echo, but Cash also sang a verse with Crowell’s Houston inflection, and followed with an earlier Crowell co-write, the sad “I Don’t Know Why You Don’t Want Me,” Leventhal at the piano.
After her dad’s jaunty “Tennessee Flat Top Box” and her own early Nashville hit “Seven Year Ache,” they encored with the mournful “September When it Comes” and the sing-along “Heartaches by the Number.” Intro’ing the encore, Cash said she was happy to sing another song at the beautiful Hall and had earlier commented that the place made her want to “do a better job.” It worked.
Postponed by illness from December, the concert was a benefit for the Capital Region Coalition to End Homelessness.