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44.1 kHz Archive

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Johnny Cash
Live At Town Hall Party 1958/1959

If you doubt the existence of a supreme being, then surely the live sets contained on these two LPs (yes, LPs — neither set has been released on CD) will make you reconsider your feelings of cosmic uncertainty. If the appearance of two early Johnny Cash concerts from the late '50s doesn't confirm the existence of God and prove that He is good, then I don't know what does.

What we have here are two slabs of 180 gram vinyl, a full 360 grams of black love, fella. Cash is backed by the Tennessee Two in '58 and the Tennessee Two "plus three" in '59, and all together they thump through two exceptional sets for the hick TV show "Town Hall Party." The sound is shockingly good, strong and clear, and Cash's wit displayed here in the late '50s is as sharp as it would later be in the late '60s, his peak. Discussing his first album, The Fabulous Johnny Cash, The Man in Sky-Blue (he was not yet sporting black) said in '59, "It was a very big seller for us: It sold 13 copies, which I thought was very good because the next one sold 12." Can you believe this is the same guy who is now recording covers of lame Depeche Mode and Soundgarden songs with Rick Rubin?! Honestly, does the world need to hear Johnny Cash sing Nine Inch Nails songs?! No.

But let's not dwell on any of that when we've got two pieces of history here. Cash is clearly in his prime as he performs at Town Hall Party. His voice is as strong as a bear on steroids and the band is tighter than, well, you get the idea. Cash's vocals aren't nearly as gritty as they are on later releases, but the passion is there in spades and the band's playing is confident and sturdy. And while Cash was more polished during this period, much of the material still has a nasty edge.

The selection of songs performed on both nights is especially on-target, particularly the 1959 show. Sure, a few songs are played at both shows, but one can live with a couple different versions of "Frankie's Man Johnny" and "Take Your Guns to Town," right? And, sure, most of the better songs played at both shows can be found on the classic At San Quentin and At Folsom Prison albums, but you won't find early hits like "The Ways of a Woman in Love" or "Guess Things Happen That Way," which has more kick when performed here than it has in its recorded version, performed live anywhere else. Cash laughs his way through "Five Feet High and Rising" and roars through "Big River." Heck, the band even tears through "I Got Stripes" twice during the 1959 show and Cash does a mocking version of "Heartbreak Hotel" that must sting the so-called King to this day.

According to the liner notes, these LPs document "the birth of country cool," but don't let that statement dissuade you from buying 'em! The only real complaint one might lodge against these two fine LPs is that they are both rather short; in fact, both sets could have easily fit on one LP or, God forbid, one CD. Nitpicking aside, no home is complete without the Live at Town Hall Party LPs — you are encouraged to buy both of 'em as soon as humanly possible. I realize that most folks don't even own record players these days, and if you're one of the many in that group, I suggest you first get yourself a turntable, then buy these two longplayers. Yes, I am actually encouraging you to buy a record player just to hear these two records, 'cos they're just that good.

by Joseph Larkin

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