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Arts Festival Review: The Man in Black

Arts Festival Review: The Man in Black

Review by Ali Little

The Man in Black: the Johnny Cash Story
Starring Tex Perkins and the Tennessee Four, Australia
Pacific Blue Festival Club
17 March 2010

Tex Perkins has the slicked-back mullet look and a perfect faux American accent. In The Man in Black he sings his heart out, using Johnny Cash's vocal tics to give fresh life to old Cash classics. Perkins performs the comedy songs with relish, and the gravellier songs with great skill. The deliciously miserable 'Hurt' is a show highlight, capturing the bitter sadness of an old man who's had it all, and discovered the all weren't worth a bean.

Perkins is backed by a four piece band, and Rachael Tidd shares the tasks of storytelling and singing, in the persona of Cash's second wife June Carter. The opening number is an energetic rendition of 'I Walk the Line'; also included are a fair sampling of greatest hits, including 'Folsom Prison Blues', 'Ring of Fire', 'Bird on a Wire', and 'The Man in Black'. The show is leavened with some humorous oddities, such as 'A Boy Named Sue', and 'Jackson'.

The show traces Cash's musical influences, from cotton field labour songs, rhythm and blues, folk, and gospel, mixing the songs with a narration of the triumph, tragedy and romance that defined Cash's life and shaped his music. Stating with a poor white-trash childhood, the show covers an early meteoric rise to fame and an equally meteoric crash, when Cash was bought low by pernicious drink and drug problems. The show then tells of his forty year musical and personal relationship with June Carter, and ends with his death, a few months after hers.

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Perkins has a charming stage persona, singing in an American accent, dropping into his native 'Strine to move the story on, and then using an exaggerated Southern drawl to speak as Cash. Tidd performs her role well, and the musicians are slickly professional. The energetic bass player (both double bass and bass guitar) was particularly entertaining to watch, as well as to listen to.

They were all were let down unfortunately by a spate of minor technical irritations. It was mildly amusing when the band hummed along with the speaker feedback in the opening sequence, but with that corrected other sound problems became apparent. Several songs were distractingly distorted, and at times the electric guitar overwhelmed the other instruments and the singers. Finally near the end of the show Perkins' earpiece-microphone became dislodged, and he kept furtively, and then wretchedly trying to put it back in place, before finally giving up and reverting to using the fixed microphones for the final few numbers.

For the the most part the audience were polite rather than enthusiastic – the atmosphere was definitely more stage show than concert. The cramped seats of the Festival Club venue don't help, the enforced proximity to strangers engendering the kind of social embarrassment of that is normally only associated with economy class airline travel. A couple did dance in front of the stage, briefly, but when no one joined them they soon slunk back to anonymity. People stood up and cheered when the musicians returned for the encore, but only one lady actually stayed on her feet, gyrating cheerfully alone after everyone else had sat down.

Despite dying in 2003, Johnny Cash continues to be a very successful performer. Another album was released this January, more sad recordings from the very end of his life, when his voice had lost much of its strength. Tex Perkins' show is a fine way to be reminded of the musical variety and the dynamic energy behind Cash's fame. Even if a Wellington audience doesn't quite do as much toe-tapping as the songs deserve.


Press release: The Man in Black: The Johnny Cash Story
Arts Festival website: The Man in Black: The Johnny Cash Story
Scoop Full Coverage: Arts Festival 2010

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