Johnny Cash Live at Madison Square Garden (Legacy)

To Cash aficionados and true country fans, this disc must approach the stature of a holy relic.

Columbia’s Legacy label continues to commemorate the seventieth birthday of Johnny Cash with the latest in a series of reissues that, technically, isn’t. That is, Johnny Cash at Madison Square Garden revisits a New York concert by the Man in Black staged December 5, 1969, the recording of which has unthinkably remained unreleased till now.

To Cash aficionados and true country fans—positing a supremely unlikely distinction—this disc must approach the stature of a holy relic. Recorded at a time when orchestra seats in perhaps the most renowned venue in the Big Apple sold for less than a sawbuck, the CD runs roughly an hour and a half and presents more than two dozen tracks. Among them, Cash (his legendary baritone quavery at first but stabilizing fast) performs not only his own standbys like “Big River,” “Five Feet High and Rising,” and “Folsom Prison Blues,” but also such classics as “Cocaine Blues,” “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” and “Daddy Sang Bass.”

The disc moreover showcases Carl Perkins doing “Blue Suede Shoes,” the Statler Brothers romping through “Flowers on the Wall,” and, gloriously, Mother Maybelle and the Carter Family reprising “Wildwood Flower.” (MIA: June Carter Cash, who was entering her third trimester of pregnancy at the time of the concert, sadly but sagely stayed home, as her husband notes during an aside.)

Also included is some characteristically puckish inter-song patter from Cash. Those for whom the Vietnam War qualifies as something more than ancient history should wait for his “dove with claws” anecdote—more than three decades after the fact, it still goes for the throat.

That long-gone night in ’69, Madison Square Garden sold out. For listeners who didn’t number among the 19,000-plus attendees, this disc explains why.

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