How do you capture the magic of ‘A walking contradiction?’ That’s how Kris Kristofferson famously described Johnny Cash. The answer has to be – Let the music do the talking, and that’s just what ‘Texas Heat’ did in their Tribute Show to mark what would have been the great Man’s 80th year, titled Just Cash. A crowded Harmonie audience aged from 17 to 70 proved without doubt that ‘The Man’ is both as magical and as mystifying to music lovers as ever.
Bernd ‘Marty’ Wolf has been covering Johnny Cash songs since the 1980’s with various bands. He’s a self confessed Cash fan who wears his heart very much on his sleeve as the bands recently released mini CD ‘A Very Special Day’ makes clear. It contains four songs written by Wolf concerning his relationship to the music of his idol and the heart on his sleeve is a very eloquent one too. The four pieces are interspersed throughout this evenings music, and work perfectly to give the listener a chance to step back from the main evenings fare which is of course the music of J.R. Cash and place them in context.
It’s a tall order to encapsulate the work of such a prolific singer/songwriter within the confines of a mere couple of hours of course but ‘Texas Heat’ make a surprisingly good attempt at it, even bringing in their own June Carter-Cash in the shapely shape of Jolina Carl. It should be added that Carl herself is a talented lady who, amongst other notable firsts, is the only female to hold positions one and two simultaneously in Germany’s Country Music Airplay Charts. The credentials of our ‘June & Johnny’ are pretty solid then, but how do they play out?
Bernd ‘Marty’ Wolf is a tall man, reminding me more of Jack Nicholson than John Cash – until he opens his mouth to sing that is. His voice is uncannily that of the Man in Black, particularly on the early numbers from the Cash songbook, before the voice reached it’s Rick Rubins produced gravelly depths on the later releases. The music itself reminds me more of the ‘Walk The Line’ film with Joaquin Phoenix – the feel of the originals, but with a squeaky clean veneer, almost as if someone gave the original recordings a bath and scrub up. Unlike Phoenix, Wolf doesn’t try to ‘do’ Cash physically onstage. There’s no pointing the guitar around at the audience like it was a machine gun, and that is exactly how it should be – we should be listening , not watching. Listening to that famous ‘boom-chicka-boom’ rhythm. A sound that Cash himself rather deprecatingly in his Autobiography puts down to Luther Perkins inability to play complicated lead parts (although he also recounts Keith Richards turning up at a show once just to hear Perkins play). On this topic Bernd Wolf certainly ‘walks the line’ by describing the sound as a simple but brilliant innovative style that came to be copied but never bettered. Wolf actually ‘plays’ both Cash and Perkins (and later Bob Wootton) in these shows since he is also lead/rhythm guitarist.
‘Just Cash’ really is a roller coaster ride through the music of Johnny Cash. There are some songs that you HAVE to play as Wolf admits. Numbers like Ring of Fire and Jackson. There is also room in the set for personal favourites and lesser known treasures such as ‘Wrinkled crinkled, wadded dollar bill’. There is place for Carter/Cash favourites too such as ‘Darling Companion’ and ‘Wildwood Flower’, there is place for Texas Heats own Cash tributes like ‘Old Black Record’ and ‘That Hot & Blue Guitar’, there is even enough space left over for an imaginative and surprisingly effective ‘Cash meets Presley’ chick-a-boom version of ‘In the Ghetto’. Actually, although some thirty+ songs in all are somehow squeezed into the set, still you feel the band have barely been able to scratch at the surface of Cash’ genius.
I suspect the huge turnout for this show caught the Harmonie slightly unawares. Certainly it made for an emotional atmosphere as Wolf came onto the stage alone at 10.30pm with just his acoustic guitar in hand. “I’d like you all please to be very quiet for this last one” he asked. ‘…and at the end I’d like it if you could really applaud with all your might. Not for me, but for Johnny. For Johnny Cash”. The song he played of course was the best Cash song the man in black never wrote – ‘Hurt’, Just hearing the song evokes the video with it’s lyrical images of decay and visual ones of the young Johnny on film and the old Johnny sat tired and fragile at his piano keyboard. Within months of the video wife June was dead and soon afterwards Johnny was gone too. Even their house is gone now – following a fire in 2007. Carter, Cash, The Tennessee Two, all memories. Once again the evening was about images in our heads rather than onstage, conjured with a loving eye and spot-on voice by Wolf. The song finished, the lights dimmed, and the audience erupted – in appreciation of the Real Man in Black. I suspect also for the men (and woman) who brought him back to us for a wonderful couple of hours. Jolina Carl was about to introduce Wolf as ‘The Man in Black’ when she remembered he doesn’t like such comparisons. There was, and still is, only ONE Man in Black.
As Wolf so perfectly puts it in ‘That September Day’, his moving tribute song to the Man: