Review Summary: Nothing other than legendary; nothing short of classic.(Note: I'm reviewing the 2000 re-issue, which features 8 additional tracks and a revised track order.)
The lyrics are simplistic. The song structures are formulaic. The guitars are repetitive. Yet such is the magic and power of Johnny Cash that these seemingly negative musical qualities not only never held him back, but actually defined his music. The Man In Black had a musical clout about him that allowed his attitude and personality to shine through even on a c.d.; you become enraptured not only by the stories he tells in each song, but also by the man himself--the mystery, the persona, the legend. That deep, soothing bass voice demands you pay attention to the words it was forming; hardly dynamic, yet so personable. It's almost as if he's singing directly to you. Such is the magic and power of Johnny Cash. And it seems that the greatest concentration of that magic, that power, can be found on this very disc, a recording of a live concert he performed at California's San Quentin Prison.
'At San Quentin
'is, of course, Johnny Cash's second prison concert album, coming directly after the near-equally phenomenal 'At Folsom Prison
'. It's an amazing feat in its own right to be able to successfully follow up such a classic album, but this performance not only follows it up, but shows it up. In fact, I'd even be so bold as to claim that 'San Quentin
' is perhaps the greatest achievement classic country has ever produced...of course, this would be assuming that you could even call Johnny Cash country. Most people do for simplicity's sake, I'd imagine, but it's more a mix of bluegrass, folk and pure red-blooded, black-laced attitude, as is apparent in the simple fact that the two prison concert recording even exists. But it's not simply because he's Johnny Cash that this c.d. succeeds so effortlessly. It's the amount of himself he puts into the concert, and the authenticity of the performance. It flows organically; so organically, in fact, that it is nearly impossible to listen to this c.d. on random. They can stand alone as individual songs, sure, but only when you listen to the entire thing in order do you start to feel that magic, that power that Cash has in performance. That's when you start to get a feel as to why this c.d. is such a classic.
The track list is rather varied. Unlike 'Folsom Prison
', 'San Quentin
sees Johnny Cash performing some of his well-known hits, including A Boy Named Sue
, Ring of Fire
, and I Walk the Line
. All are performed masterfully, but the highlights of the series are the songs which aren't as well known (or weren't as well known before he performed them here). For example, one such highlight is I Don't Know Where I'm Bound
, a song written by a San Quentin inmate which Cash states he saw for the first time the day before and felt compelled to perform. It's a slower, softer song that sings (understandably) about a longing of freedom; given the classic Cash treatment, it manages to portray more emotion than most songs you might hear today. Another highlight would be Starkville City Jail
, in which he sings of being arrested in Starkville, MS for picking flowers at 2:00 a.m. (and by "picking flowers," he actually means passing out drunk in a lawn). The hymns He Turned Water Into Wine
and (There'll Be) Peace In The Valley
both of which feature backing vocals by the Carter family, also stand out during the performance. These are the songs that turn out to be the most personal, the ones that the prisoners resonate most with...and so, the ones that are most likely to stick with anyone who listens to the concert.
As well, it's not only the songs that help create the atmosphere, but also the banter of Cash to the prisoners, and the interplay between this banter and the songs he sings. The prisoners themselves give nearly as much character to this album as Cash himself, and nowhere is this more pronounced than during the performance of San Quentin
. San Quentin
is the featured song of the concert, in which a prisoner speaks of his unadulterated hatred of the very place that the performance is taking place in. As Cash sings, the prisoners gathered in the audience cheer and whistle with a fervor not seen anywhere else on the disc. As the song finishes and the prisoners give the longest, loudest cheer of the album, Cash speaks out to the crowd, "Well, if any of the guards are still talking to me, I'd like a glass of water." He then proceeds to sing the song again. This sort of interaction almost makes a listener feel like they're right in the middle of the crowd, laughing with the prisoners, booing at the guards, and being entranced by The Man In Black.
There's no doubt that 'At San Quentin
' rests among the greatest classics of the 1900's. Though he in no-way peaked with this performance, this is perhaps the highlight of Johnny Cash's entire discography (at least tied with its predecessor, 'At Folsom Prison
'). If you've ever wondered about the music of the Man In Black, if you never understood why there was a movie made about his life, if you've never heard anything beyond his cover of Nine Inch Nails's "Hurt," GET THIS ALBUM. If you wonder what true Country music sounds like, GET THIS ALBUM. Hell, if you're a fan of any kind of music at all and you haven't heard old-tyme Johnny Cash, I implore you: GET. THIS. ALBUM.
It comes highly recommended by fans of everything, and I firmly believe that anybody, no matter what their preferred style of music, can appreciate the beauty of Johnny Cash's performance at San Quentin. Nothing other than legendary. Nothing short of classic. Nothing less than a 5 rating.