What did it mean for Johnny Cash to “Walk the Line”? At First Person Singular's one night only (May 28) performance of Wanted Man: Johnny Cash at San Quentin at Berkeley's Ashby Stage, star Josh Pollock argued that we can all relate to the fine line that Cash walked his entire life.
He was never jailed for his drinking or drug problems, but as he performed at San Quentin prison — recorded for his now-classic 1969 album At San Quentin, the follow-up to 1968's At Folsom Prison — he is said to have looked out at the inmates and thought how close he had been, so many days and nights, to tipping over a precarious edge. June Carter, God, and his guitar kept him on the right side of the law (rock 'n' roll fun fact: he was arrested, once, for picking flowers).
Pollock and backing band the East Bay Three did an amazing job capturing the spirit of Cash's material. Before the show Pollock told me that he was proud to consider this reinterpretation sacrilege, though the audience certainly took nothing but raw pleasure in the performance.
Although the seats were mostly filled with older Cash aficionados, it was a still fairly diverse crowd, and boy did they join in when foot-stomping and hand clapping was encouraged. It was the kind of musical experience where you felt yourself completely enveloped with a feeling of community, and the passion of the music made you forget any trivial problems that had preoccupied your mind earlier that day.
Pollock’s theatrical idiosyncrasies, including some creative hand gestures when he did not have his guitar occupying his arms, were quite entertaining — he was sure giving it his all. The same can also be said for the East Bay Three, comprised of musicians well-known for their other projects.
Violinist Anton Patzner is an Oakland native, and his musical skills have brought him on world tours with the likes of no less than Bright Eyes, including a Late Show with David Letterman performance. His band Judgement Day (with his brother Lewis Patzner) is a “string metal” trio, accompanied by drums.
The Cash show gave Patzner the chance to utilize his violin skills, but he also played such offbeat instruments as a barrel drum (literally a barrel, upright). Watching Patzner bang the hell out of that barrel encapsulated a little taste of the level of fervor I imagine Cash faced, playing before those San Quentin fans over four decades ago.
Laura Weinbach of Foxtails Brigade offered a spitfire interpretation of June Carter, duetting with Pollock on “Jackson”. Weinbach’s inflection and guitar playing were both quite enjoyable. Joe Lewis on upright bass was also fascinating to watch; he played with pluck and great timing. An added treat was that Weinbach’s younger twin brothers made an appearance on trumpet and saxophone — and even had a whistling musical break. Their hand-snapping and dance moves were certainly among the most charming moments of the show.
During his rendition of "Starkville City Jail" — written about that infamous flower-picking incident — Pollock paused to ruminate on how much Cash’s shoes ("I started pacin' back and forth and now and then, I'd yell/ And kick my forty dollar shoes against the steel door of my cell") would cost now with inflation (he guessed $200).
Next up for First Person Singular — according to host Joe Christiano, "a performance series that draws from a variety of media to showcase the American voice" — is an all-duets installment of its "Hoot!" open mic night, Sun/10 at St. Alban's Episcopal Church in Albany.