For some reason, when I started this blog, I told myself I wouldn’t talk about any live albums. Just today I asked myself why not? After all, they’re still albums, and I’ve been listening to a particular one all day to get me through a 13 hour day at work:
This is the second live album Johnny Cash recorded in a prison, 2 years after his most famous album At Folsom Prison, and I quite prefer At San Quentin for a few reasons. For one, the instruments are in tune most of the time, which was a big problem with At Folsom Prison. For two, the songs are much tighter and performed better, and for three, the dialogue and audience response is much better. This is possibly because the act for Folsom was a bit more rehearsed (the Legacy Edition box set of At Folsom Prison contains the concerts done on both days and there are a lot of lines repeated from the first show in the second), and even the set-list for San Quentin was barely written, in fact Johnny says at one point,
“I tell you what, the show is being recorded and televised for England, and they told me you gotta do this song, you gotta do that song, you gotta stand like this and walk like this, and I don’t get it man. I’m here to do what I wanna do and what you want me to do. So whaddya wanna hear?!“
Really, all of the dialogue has a more loose, rebellious and even mischievous feel to it, and that conveys in the album really well. Not to take anything away from At Folsom Prison, it’s just a personal preference of mine. Truthfully, the song “Folsom Prison Blues” sounds better to me on At Folsom Prison.
So, how could it possibly take all day to listen to a live album, you ask? Well, I recently purchased the Legacy Edition box set, which contains the entire concert. There is a slimmer edition that is called rather erroneously “At San Quentin: The Complete Concert”, since it adds 8 more tracks to the original 10 song release, but that edition leaves out 4 songs, and the Legacy Edition even contains the 3 opening acts, so yes… it’s long.
In fact, the album starts with Carl Perkins playing his song that made Elvis famous, “Blue Suede Shoes”, and then vocal quartet The Statler Brothers come out and sing a pretty good song. Then June Carter Cash, who had just recently married Johnny Cash, came out and did a song with The Carter Family (their most famous, “Wildwood Flower”) and recited a poem she wrote. It’s probably about 25 minutes or so before Johnny even takes the stage with his signature “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.”
He opens with one of my favorite train songs, “The Wreck Of The Old 97″ where he does this “woo woo” thing with his voice that actually sounds like a train whistle. I have no idea how he does that, but it’s great nonetheless.
It would really be useless to talk about how well he does each song, because it would probably take several thousand more words than I’ve limited myself to, but some particular highlights include the following:
“Folsom Prison Blues” is the only song I ever knew by Johnny Cash before I took an active interest in him, so it remains my favorite song he does. This particular version is notable because it’s the first time he played it on a recording with then-new guitarist Bob Wootton, who was a life-long fan of Cash’s and when the original guitarist Luther Perkins died in a fire only 7 months before At San Quentin, it turned out that Bob Wootton knew every single note of the lead guitar parts of the Tennessee Three, so he was a shoe-in. He’s a great guitarist, despite his tendency to play a distinct extra note in the minimalist lead guitar part of “Folsom Prison Blues” that I kind of have mixed feelings about.
One highlight of course is the string of hits that are Johnny Cash staples, “I Walk The Line”, “Long Black Veil”, “Give My Love To Rose”, and “Orange Blossom Special”, all of which sound excellent. One particular thing about “Orange Blossom Special” that might not be apparent from simply listening to it is that Johnny plays a pair of “Harmonicae” for the lines between verses, and switches them with the chord changes, which is fairly amusing to see.
Johnny also sings a couple of duets with June Carter, “Darlin’ Companion” and “Jackson“, and he sings with the whole Carter family on a song called “Break My Mind” which was one of the songs that was cut from every version except the Legacy Edition. It’s too bad because that’s a really good song. I think the sound might have been a little off so perhaps that’s the reason.
The middle of the album, which contains the “prison songs”, is probably the best part of the album. It starts with a prisoner-penned song called “I Don’t Know Where I’m Bound” which is a very spiritual number, followed up by Johnny’s own “Starkville County Jail”, which is an account of an actual night Johnny spent in prison for picking flowers in Starkville City, Mississippi. He talks about it before playing the actual song, and after that song he plays a tune he had written specifically for San Quentin. The excitement of the prisoners to be hearing this wonderfully spiteful song is crazy to listen to, I actually don’t think I’ve heard as much earnest and loud applause as when he finished that song. He did it so well he played it again immediately afterwards! The interesting thing there is that the crowd is practically silent for the second run, not because the novelty wore off that quickly, I think they just wanted to hear every single word and make damn sure it stuck in their heads so they’d be singing it for the next few years.
There’s really no way you can top a song like that in a place like that, so Johnny presses on with a tune he wrote with Bob Dylan called “Wanted Man” (which would years later be re-done on a Mercury Records album called, well, Wanted Man), and then takes a break while Carl Perkins plays a really hot instrumental called “On The Outside Looking In” which was cut out of the non-expensive versions).
The next song is the debut of one of the few “joke” songs Johnny ever did, but it’s such an absorbing story that you hardly think of it as such. “A Boy Named Sue” is one of my favorite Johnny Cash songs because it’s put together so well, lyrically speaking. The crowd really loves the song, too, even though they seemed to not take Johnny seriously when he announced earlier in the show that he’d be doing a song called “A Boy Named Sue”.
After that song and another cut song called “Blistered”, the show slows down with several gospel numbers such as “(There’ll Be) Peace In The Valley”, “Less Of Me” performed by the Statler Brothers, “He Turned The Water Into Wine”, “Daddy Sang Bass” (which Carl Perkins also wrote), and “The Old Account Was Settled”, pausing briefly to play a really good rendition of “Ring Of Fire”.
The album closes out with a Medley where each of the performers sing a line or two from the “hit” songs, and Johnny himself closes with some lines from “The Rebel Johnny Yuma”. I actually really dig the ending to this album, I guess after listening to the thing for nearly 2 hours it’s kind of nostalgic in a way.
It took Johnny Cash years to convince the record company that recording an album live inside of a prison would be a great idea, and I am glad his message got through. I really do love At Folsom Prison and I’m sure will be talking about that one later on, but At San Quentin is the live album I tend to listen to whenever I feel like hearing the quintessential “live” Cash. Though I really love the “Legacy Edition” box set of the performance (it includes the DVD of the English documentary they mention from which the Youtube videos were extracted), I’d say if you pay a fraction of the cost to get “The Complete Concert” edition, you won’t be missing out on too much. As for me, I am an absolute sucker for special-edition anything, and I love all the extra banter included with the cut songs, so I am very happy with this version of the album.
I’m not happy, however, with how late it took me to write this entry. I had to work from 7am until 8pm so that’s why it’s late. Oh well, until tomorrow!
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