Celebrate an old disc, introduce a brand new one, and play all the old classic hits. There’s nothing like a challenge to focus the mind. Bernd Wolf, Leverkusen’s biggest Johnny Cash fan, apologizes late in tonight’s long set that he hasn’t done as much talking about the songs as usual and adds – “is that alright? There’s a lot to play tonight!” In an effort to squeeze it all in the band even step onto the Harmonie stage a few minutes before the due 8pm start time (how often do you read that sentence in a live music review?!) but truthfully they could have started an hour early and still not have managed to play everything.
It’s been more than three years since I last caught Leverkusen’s ‘JR’ in action. I kept tabs on what Bernd Wolf was up to via Facebook, so I knew there were some hefty changes in store since March 2014, but even so it took a while to get a handle on all the changes. The band itself is totally different, with Jens Lükermann on bass and Gunnar Olsen taking the drumstool. The result is a sound that’s a little different, less boom-chick-a-boom than before, which may or may not be a bad thing depending on what you want from the evening.
Not that Bernd Wolf has ever claimed to be head of a Johnny Cash coverband, or for that matter even tried /wanted to painstakingly recreate the classic Johnny Cash sound. Wolf is too damn familiar with the legend, and the legends musical children, to even dare claim or seek a sound like his idol. A concert with Bernd Wolf is rather akin to a history lesson from your favorite teacher, who manages to enthuse you with the past by bringing it alive with anecdotes and emotions along with the hard facts.
Seen that way, this evening’s show does take on a structure – The opening songs are about the impact of Cash’s music through it’s impact on Wolf. Then there is the impact of his famous prison visits with an outing for most of ‘At Folsom Prison’, rounded off by the classic Cash numbers that keep the music very much alive in 2017. I would like to have seen a few younger faces in the audience – where were you young Johnny Cash fans? I hope you are out there. Do modern Country heroes lead fans back to the old Masters as happens with the Blues? I hope so.
Time moves on, and, in the case of Bernd Wolf, the changes aren’t just musical. I’m still not sure if tonight’s concert is by ‘JustCASH’, ‘PureCASH’ or ‘Texas Heat’. Not too sure even of what the name differences might mean. Other differences are more easily understood. In 2013 the excellent Jolina Carl was Wolf’s June Cash, but tonight when Wolf sings ‘Darling Companion’ it’s to his real-life darling companion Elisabeth Erlemann, and they do indeed have an onstage charisma between them. Erlemann earns her right to be ‘June’ musically too with a good voice and clean guitar picking when the occasion demands, which is very often in the opening set as it features a large slice of the upcoming new disc ‘Heart on the Highway’ (due out February 2018).
From the tracks played the new disc will have very much it’s own sound. Not surprisingly Cash is the inspiration and often also the subject – titles like ‘Cash in my Heart’, ‘Johnny Cash & Me’ and ‘Like John & June Every Night’ leave no doubts about that. On tonight’s evidence the new release will feature smooth Country songs from the heart that should be well received by an audience largely eager to celebrate Johnny Cash without it meaning having to sit through still one more version of ‘Walk the Line’ on disc. Which is I suspect exactly how Bernd Wolf would want it.
Onstage though is a different matter, and this block of new material cuts heavily into the time available for Cash classics. Just balancing the old and the new music would be a challenge, but there’s also an Anniversary to celebrate: In January of 1968 Johnny Cash walked through the gates of Folsom Prison and into recording history. If not as ambitious as Cash’s original show, Bernd Wolf’s plan to play a large chunk of ‘At Folsom Prison’ is still pretty bold on top of the upcoming new disc and the regular Cash classics. For my part I would happily have swapped ‘Dark as a Dungeon’ for ‘Rusty Cage’ and the disappointment when even an acoustic rendering of ‘Hurt’ to end the show was not possible due to the time curfew was palpable from every corner of the hall. I did enjoy hearing a rare live version of that blackest of humor songs from Folsom ’25 minutes to go’ though (for which there is a wonderful cartoon version )
I suspect that the inmates of Folsom, or indeed at San Quentin, would have rioted if they didn’t hear ‘‘Ring of Fire’, Walk the Line’ or ‘San Quentin’ and similarly tonight’s audience would have felt cheated going home without such songs ringing in their ears. The prison audience would not have missed ‘Hurt’ of course because in those days it didn’t exist in Johnny’s set. The song that was to become Johnny’s epitaph was only released into the world by Nine Inch Nails in 1995. Those who missed it this evening may have to miss it again next year though if Bernd Wolf puts together a show based around Johnny Cash’s ‘San Quentin’ release. I suggest that it will take up the whole evening when I see Bernd later but, with his encyclopedic Cash knowledge he quickly rattles off the songs that were duplicated during the San Quentin recordings. I almost expect him to tell me the length of the set without even rounding the time off into minutes, and that’s really why Bernd Wolf and Texas Heat/JustCASH are high on my list of local heroes worth seeing. Music from and for the heart – oh, and even though he might dispute it, when Bernd Wolf sings Cash and you close your eyes, JR really isn’t gone at all…
Finally, a 3songsbonn exclusive as Bernd gives us a snatch of Cash German style…