Saturday, April 03, 2010

Inside ACL: Cash & Carlile


If Rosanne Cash seemed at home in front of a crowd Tuesday night in the Austin City Limits studio, it was likely because she was making her seventh appearance on the historic stage. Kicking things off with the jazzy/bluesy “I’m Movin’ On” from her latest album “The List,” Cash explained the album’s title, a reference to a list of 100 essential country songs given to her by her father, Johnny Cash, when she was 18. Taking on 12 of these songs for the album, Cash performed the classic “Miss the Mississippi and You” and was joined by her husband, John Leventhal on the beautiful “Sea of Heartbreak.” With help from a kickin’ electric organ, Cash turned out a rocking version of the Harlan Howard song “Heartaches by the Number.”

Taking a second to catch her breath, Cash thanked her friend Kathy for lending her the earrings she was wearing. A moment later, realizing her guitar strap had gone missing, a member of the crowd called out, “Does Kathy have one?” Cash called back, “If she does, it doesn’t say ‘Cash’ on it. And if she does, that’s gonna be weird.” With the guitar strap located and reattached, Cash simply introduced the next song saying, “There is no American roots music without ‘Long Black Veil’.” Wrapping up the portion of the set focused on “The List,” Cash took on the last track from the album, a sincere Carter family hymn, “Bury Me Under the Weeping Willow.”

Changing gears with a couple of songs from “Black Cadillac,” Cash’s voice had a spiciness in it on “Burn Down This Town.” While during rehearsal it had taken a couple of tries to get the mic levels just right for the lovely vocals on “Dreams Are Not My Home,” here the sound was just right, and set Cash and her band up to round out the evening’s set with “The Wheel.”

While Cash was wrapping her seventh Austin City Limits show, backstage Brandi Carlile was preparing for her first.

Just before the end of afternoon rehearsal, Carlile and her band had formed a semi-circle at the front of the stage, standing together and cooing a tight harmony. With the simple strumming of a ukulele and Carlile’s powerful vocals, the band opened in this way with “Oh Dear.” If it’s possible to make the Austin City Limits studio feel more intimate, Carlile did this twice, in the opening, and again in the middle of the set, when she brought the band to the front of the stage and played completely unplugged. While a boom mic captured the sound for the tape, the audience in the room had to keep quiet to hear “Dying Day,” though that didn’t stop a little foot stomping.

Kicking out some rock ‘n’ roll drums on “Dreams,” and bringing out a four-person string section for “Turpentine,” Carlile and her band built a set that managed to be both raucous and melodic. While “Before it Breaks” had been the first song played during rehearsal, the song hung nicely here in the middle of the set, allowing Carlile to stroll to the piano and talk about recording the song with Elton John. She’d emailed him one night to ask about recording with her and early the next morning he called to say yes. And when she mentioned she didn’t keep up much with new music, he sent 100 records to her house.

Before displaying her beautifully powerful vocals on “Pride and Joy,” Carlile moved to the center microphone and said that the first song she ever sang on stage was “Flat-Top Box” by Johnny Cash. If you’re going to cover a Johnny Cash song, and it’s a particularly high-profile Johnny Cash song, and you’re following Rosanne Cash, well, you better knock it out of the park. Getting the entire crowd standing and clapping to “Folsom Prison Blues,” Carlile and her band did just that – staging something of a dueling banjos scenario, the fiddler and guitarist playfully challenging each other. While the crowd was worked up, Carlile added a two-song encore, finishing with Bob Dylan’s always-apt “The Times They Are A-Changin’.”