‘Man in Black’ at the Beehive

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It isn’t often that one gets to meet a musical legend and sing along with him and his band, but that was the treat in store for the lucky audience at the Beehive on Sunday 17th May.

Johnny Cash, the ‘Man in Black’ himself, was on stage to tell us about his life and the nuances of many milestone songs in the five-decade career of  a performer who covered the musical genres of Gospel, Folk, Country, Rockabilly, and Rock and Roll in his lifetime.

Of course, Cash died in 2003. But it would be foolish to refer to ‘Johnny Cash Revisited’ as a ‘tribute band’. That is only part of the experience.

Firstly, there is the band itself: Starkville City – named after the prison where Cash spent a night in gaol for ‘stealing flowers from private property’ (he picked a dandelion), and for which he later wrote the snarky Starkville City Jail which went down so well with prisoners at his famous concert at San Quentin State Penitentiary in 1969.

Now this band, to use rock parlance, is tight. Essentially what this means is that the bass and rhythm guitar are aligned with the drumbeat and keep their position very precisely over the length of the song. It doesn’t mean that they are dead on the beat  – they can be ahead, on, or behind it. It just means that, whatever position they take, they stick to it – a bit like formation flying. It’s perfect for punchy music styles like Rockabilly and is what gives Boogie-Woogie its wonderful, hypnotic underlying rhythm.  They (Mark Jacobs: guitar, John Standen: double bass, and Matt Jacobs: drums) have all obviously done this before.

The ‘rock steady beat’ spoke for itself when the band performed a couple of solo numbers by close contemporary friends of Johnny Cash (Carl Perkins Blue Suede Shoes and David Dudley’s Six Days on the Road) but the real beauty of the rock steady beat is that is allows the other performers to metaphorically ‘dance’ around it.  Thus we had Gary Mears on keyboards providing piano solos, string backgrounds and horn/trumpet overlays as per the original recordings.  Which brings us to the singers………….

Rick McKay and his wife Jodie are genuine fans of Johnny Cash (“I’m not just in it for the cash, if you’ll excuse the pun” says Rick). His parents were huge fans of Cash, and as a child he spent hours and hours in his bedroom trying to imitate his favourite singer. Jodie, who on stage plays June Carter – Cash’s second wife – has an equally thorough grounding in country music having performed on stage since the age of five, and having a father with his own country music show on Radio Essex. Her angelic vocal harmonies are brilliant.

For me, as one of the audience, there are two things that enthral me about Rick’s performance as Cash. Firstly, he never steps out of character: from the black three-quarter length black coat to the very real sounding Arkansas accent (he actually speaks ‘Estuary’ of the Essex variety, which surprised a great many of the audience members when they met him later in the foyer of the Beehive) to the acerbic sense of humour, to the genuine sense of commitment to social justice – he channels Cash. Secondly, his imitation is perfect. And I don’t mean that he sounds ‘like Johnny Cash’. I closed my eyes and listened, and I thought ‘That’s Johnny Cash’. End of. He’s that good.

How does he do it?

“I started out in bands and moved to theatre in 1987 when I landed the role of ‘Young Elvis’ in Forever Elvis and I guess it was then that I discovered I had a knack of being able to sing in different voices” says Rick. That’s fine, but it doesn’t do this particular performance enough justice. “How do you get that power and control behind those bass notes that Cash had?” I asked him afterwards (note: singing bass notes with power is harder than singing high notes – simply because of the extra lung expiration volume required). Rick tells me that he used to sing in a higher register, but – after some unspecified thoracic surgery – he found he was suddenly able to ‘power down there’ and match his icon. Wow.

The other thing he gets is Cash’s magical sense of timing. He is able to sing, talk, walk you through ballad, poem and prose all in the lyrics of one song (A Boy Named Sue is a perfect example) and always end up bang on the beat when he needs to. This is the perfect counterpoint to the rock steady beat provided by Starkville City, and I’m not sure it’s a skill you can learn.

So the evening is all about Cash, the man. It is not just about the songs – although they are perfectly chosen and brilliantly performed to represent milestones in the man’s life whilst including his very talented friends and wife.

Would I change anything? Maybe. Cash himself said he was ‘full of angels and demons’, and maybe the demons could be explored a little more. He was treated on numerous times for addictions, and his relationship with his first wife – with whom he had four daughters – was rocky to the point of divorce although they obviously loved each other very much.

The gig ended with Burning Ring of Fire (of course). When the band said goodbye and walked off stage without having performed this number we just patiently sat there and waited until they came back and did it! Note to band: not everyone knows that it was, in fact, June who wrote this most famous of his songs for Johnny – and not the other way round……

A great evening and I’ll leave the (almost) last words to Rick:

“No one can ever take his place, but we promise do our best to keep his music alive and, on stage where it belongs.”

You’re doing a good job of it, guys.

Review by Neil Madden