Johnny Cash - The Great Lost Performance

Johnny Cash
The Great Lost Performance


First Appeared in The Music Box, October 2007, Volume 14, #10

Written by Douglas Heselgrave

Tue October 16, 2007, 06:40 AM CDT


The Great Lost Performance — a newly issued concert recording that was captured in 1990 in Asbury Park, New Jersey — is a pleasant, unexpected surprise for followers of Johnny Cash. Considering that he already is the author of two of the greatest live collections ever assembled — At Folsom Prison and At San Quentin — one can be forgiven for being cynical about the motivations behind this latest release. In fact, there has been such a flood of Johnny Cash-related material foisted on the public over the course of the last few years that it’s natural to wonder whether this album is simply another way to wring the last few dollars from fans’ pockets by cashing in — no pun intended — on the late country great’s legacy while interest in his work is still at an all-time high.

Nevertheless, although the reasons for releasing the endeavor might be less than pure, The Great Lost Performance captures Cash at an interesting and truly under-represented period of his life and work. By 1990, he was — by his own account — an oldies artist whose career was adrift. He was painfully aware that he hadn’t had a hit or made a decent recording in years, and, of course, he had yet to enjoy the renaissance that his collaborations with Rick Rubin afforded him. Rubin encouraged Cash to strip down his sound and return to the dark emotional heart of his music. The songs they recorded together, over a series of five albums, certainly rank among the best outings in his canon.

Therefore, the artist that listeners encounter in The Great Lost Performance is not Johnny Cash as a reinvented hipster, but rather as a showman and entertainer. And, what an entertainer he was! Still in good health, Cash sounds like he is on fire and like he is clearly enjoying what he does. The band is tight and seamless. Cash himself is in fine voice, and his trademark, staccato, locomotive guitar playing is front-and-center in the mix. Though the set list is predictable — all of the favorites, from Ring of Fire to Walk the Line, were included — the songs are delivered with a level of sincerity and enthusiasm that makes them sound as though Cash had just learned them the day before. Like going to a Bob Dylan concert on a good night, the material that Cash tackles becomes irrelevant as the power of honest music — that is presented without fuss and affectation — draws listeners under its spell. Listening to the 18 songs on The Great Lost Performance, it’s impossible not to fall under Cash’s sway as he shares his tales of love, loss, and redemption with the audience.

Johnny Cash was a performer without a peer, and a large part of the secret to his success simply must be attributed to his treating his audience with the dignity and respect that they were due. Cash was acutely aware that the people who came to hear him had exchanged their hard-earned money for an evening’s entertainment, and he did his best to make sure he never let them down. He invited his audience into his songs, insinuating that he was only a messenger, giving words to emotions and experiences that they all shared while on life’s journey. In the end, this is Johnny Cash’s enduring legacy. It is not in the awards and big-city accolades for which he will be remembered. Rather, it is the feeling he created on the road, night after night for 40 years, as he brought hope and relief to every Indian reservation as well as every lumber and mining town in which he played, from Alaska to Saskatoon and back.

The Great Lost Performance is a real gem, and it is every bit the equal of his more celebrated concert collections. It is a finely crafted, hard-working set from country music’s everyman, and it is a joy to hear again and again. starstarstarstar

The Great Lost Performance is available from
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!


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