Hard to believe as it is, Johnny Cash bid us farewell eleven years ago on the crest of a late fame surge courtesy of ‘The American Recordings’. He sang homage to America in ”Ragged Old Flag’ and backed the downtrodden American Indians via ‘Ira Hayes’. So how can a man from Leverkusen ever dare to think he can step onto the Harmonie stage and play music so quintessentially from another continent with conviction? Texas Heat is the name of his band and they’re hot.
Bernd ‘Marty’ Wolf lopes in big strides onto the Harmonie stage. He’s the Man in Black this evening true enough – Black ‘Cash’ Tshirt, and Black trousers, black shoes, but that’s all he and JC have in common – until that is the stage lights switch on and Wolf starts to sing. Earlier, as I was waiting for the show to start, a man beside me had been saying He’d seen Johnny Cash a few times and had come down from Bad Godesberg this evening because he had heard a Man from Leverkusen did a good job of presenting Johnny Cash music . When we talked we were near the bar – ten minutes into the set I saw him in front of the stage, and that’s where he stayed for the next roughly 90 minutes.
This was my third taste of the Texas Heat ‘Just Cash’ show and and as always it was a pleasure. The rhythm section is tight as a ducks you know what with it’s famed ‘Boom-chicka-boom’ backbeat and Jolina Carl shows why she’s won awards in Germany for her Country Music. She also provides a perfect June Carter-Cash to Marty Wolf’s Johnny, especially on the duets like ‘Jackson’ and ‘If I were a Carpenter’. It’s the Man in Black Tshirt is who really weaves the magic though.
But where does the magic come from? The hits are all played of course as in the two previous Just Cash tours. Timeless classics like ‘Foulsom Prison Blues‘, San Quentin’ ‘Walk The Line’ and ‘Ring of Fire’ , but it’s the feeling of veneration behind the delivery that makes them special. The feeling that this man lives and breathes JC. His moving song ‘That September Day’ tells a tale familiar to many fans of a normal working day that started with jokes and finished with tears listening to the car radio playing songs from a man whose demise made headlines around the music loving world.
There’s a refreshing twist to this third tour of Just Cash. Wolf is very much a walking Johnny Cash encyclopedia and along with the history of wheres and whens that accompanies each number he reveals that the second half will have some new Cash covers. There’s one from each of the famed Rick Rubin produced ‘American Recordings’ discs. Beginning with ‘Delias Gone’ from the first disc and through ‘One’ from ‘III’ to ‘Gods Gonna Cut You Down’ from ‘V’
A world without new material from the Man is one that his fans have to live with though – even with the seeming inexhaustible release of later recordings that has appeared since. It’s a good thing then that there is excellent Country Music to be heard from others, and reminders that Texas Heat are no mean songsters in their own right are the self-penned gems sprinkled between the more famous numbers. I love The uptempo ‘Old Black Record’ in particularthe energy of ‘Hot and Blue Guitar’ and if you can manage to track down a rare copy of their ‘One Trick Pony’ disc you’ll play it to death like I have. Believe me, there’s a lot more to Bernd ‘Marty’ Wolf than Johnny cash covers – great as they are.
Tonight though it’s Cash time of course and the band are so good that it’s almost a shock to find out that Johnny never recorded ‘In the Ghetto’. It’s equally a pleasure to hear, through this excellent band, just how Johnny would have sounded doing it. In fact the truth is that Texas Heat are best listened to with both eyes firmly closed. It’s when they are at their most magical in fact. Close your eyes and you’re in Foulsom prison, or San Quentin – well, you know what I mean…
The one later Cash recording that Texas Heat have covered for some time is of course ‘Hurt’ and as Wolf freely concedes, the audience steadfastly refuse to believe it’s over until he’s returned to the stage alone save for an acoustic guitar. It’s a number that particularly benefits from the eyes shut tight approach. Let that glorious video that accompanied the original release wash over the back of your eyelids as you hear the song, plaintive and bitter sweet: I cut myself today, to see if I still feel”.
There’s barely time for the lights to come back on before the box of CD’s is open and ready for business. As Marty sells and signs we talk briefly about his love for the music of Cash’s one time mandolin/guitar player that other Marty, Marty Stuart. There’s a big grin as he recalls the pleasure of discovering Stuarts music at a 1981 show of Johnny’s. That feeling of finding something or someone who touches your soul deeply. It can happen listening to music in America, in Germany or in Timbuktu. It happens to me when I see Texas Heat too. Suddenly I understand how a man from Leverkusen can carry that old ragged flag Americanness with such conviction. ‘Keep on Pickin” is handwritten on Wolf’s acoustic by Country star Dale Watson, and you get the feeling doing so is not just a job for Marty Wolf, but a need. Long may he feel that need.
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