At San Quentin

Johnny Cash

Columbia/Legacy, 2006

REVIEW BY: Jeff Clutterbuck


Live albums, much like soundtracks, often get the short end of the stick in terms of recreating the complete experience. How many live albums really are the entire performance, dialogue and all? The answer is not many, and while that does mean live albums cannot be entertaining without these qualities, it is a breath of fresh air to find one that is complete.

At San Quentin is the lesser-known Johnny Cash live album when compared to Folsom Prison, but for my money San Quentin is the better performance, especially with the latest re-release of the record. When they say the entire concert, they mean it.

San Quentin features not just Johnny Cash but his entire touring band. That list includes Carl Perkins, the Statler Brothers and the Carter Family. In fact, there isn’t even a whiff of Cash until about six songs in. What’s even better is that the opening acts are entertaining. Perkins delivers a raw and raging version of “Blue Suede Shoes” while the Carter Family in turn performs a touching and beautiful “Wildwood Flower.”my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

But, of course, the main attraction is the Man in Black. From the moment Cash gets on the mic, there is a whole new energy and vibrancy to the proceedings. The voice is compelling as Cash and co. quickly run through a number of songs, including his classic “Walk The Line.” The undeniable chemistry of Cash and Carter is evident on “Jackson”; you can really hear how much the two care about each other.

I’ve “grown up” with the modern Johnny Cash -- the American Recordings section of his discography. That period of his life was wholly different from his peak, and that is reflected in this music. So it’s ironic that portions of this concert were underwhelming. To me, this is not what Cash sounds like, even though it’s his best material. However, I’m sure that old-school fans will eat it up.

The audience participation helps flesh out the fact this was a real performance, none of this over-dressed fakery that many live albums perpetrate these days. These are murders, drug dealers and rapists, yet one can’t help but get caught in the performance along with them. At the very least, San Quentin shocks us back into realizing prisoners are still people like you and me.

The accompanying DVD of this three-disc set was fascinating to watch; instead of a video of the concert, it functions as a documentary about life in prison. It is nice to get a visual accompaniment to the events playing out on CD and the prisoner interviews were fascinating. How often do we get a glimpse into prison life not in the form of a film or television show?

This was a box set lovingly assembled; the mastering is terrific, and the whole set of extras is worth the money. Whatever flaws the concert may have, just the fact that it exists and has this much content makes it a must-buy for any Cash fan.

Rating: A-

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© 2007 Jeff Clutterbuck and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Columbia/Legacy, and is used for informational purposes only.