MUSIC Johnny Cash Royal Albert Hall, London

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The Independent Culture
If I could have a One 2 One with Johnny Cash, I'd ask him, "Why dilute such an awesome performance by handing over so much time to family members?"

Although the concert lasted two hours, duets and floorspots took up almost half the time. His rather jittery and extremely garrulous wife, June, got six numbers and a couple of singalongs with hubby. Also roped in were Nick Lowe (a former son-in-law) and even the keyboard player, Earl Ball (of no known family connection), was given a song. What came closest to ruining the momentum was his linebacker-sized son, John Carter Cash. He did a duet with daddy before being unleashed mid-set to do five forgettable Christian country songs (sample couplet: "I got a good Christian raising / And an eighth-grade education").

The really frustrating thing about the intrusions was that, first of all, after some health problems, Cash's distinct, gruff baritone was in splendid fettle. Secondly, unlike many of his surviving contemporaries, even at 65, Cash still takes risks. He added to an already impressive career with the 1996 album Unchained, which mixes country classics with songs by the likes of ultra-hip Beck.

Aside from the family jamboree stuff, this was a night to remember. His band of long-standing - the five-handed Tennessee 3 - did a job in upping crowd anticipation by jamming "I Walk the Line" for two minutes before the now silver-haired Man in Black strode on stage. He launched into the perennial favourite of "Folsom Prison Blues", which drew huge wails from the younger element of the audience, for whom Cash is a cult icon. While, predictably, "Ring of Fire" and other old hits provoked most noise from the audience, he reserved his greatest passion for the Unchained songs. His rendition of the wistful title-track raised goose-bumps, while "Rusty Cage" by grunge rockers Soundgarden took on a haunting, deconstructed sound. Better still was the magnificent Tom Petty song "Southern Accent" ("The young 'uns call it country / The Yankees call it dumb") which the usually taciturn Cash eulogised as by far and away the best anthem to sum up the South that he's ever come across. By now, with the misplaced guest spots out of the way, he was fully in stride, mixing up new and old numbers before delivering a powerful version of his 1959 song "I Got Stripes" and then, suddenly, that was it. He walked off just as coolly as he came on, came back for a polite wave with June while the band once again strummed "I Walk the Line", and then he was gone.

Maybe it's greed, but when you have a true legend who's still pushing back the barriers of American music after over 40 years in the business, then you want him without the side-show.

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