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Music Reviews

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Johnny Cash
At Folsom Prison Legacy Edition

Rating: 9/10 ?

November 21, 2008
There is something almost magical about live albums, or rather, there is something magical about good live albums. When everything falls into place, the listener is afforded the experience of that special je ne sais quoi that keeps the whole production - fans queuing up outside in the cold, bands piling into vans and busses - rolling year after year. Of course there exists a good number of failed live albums, but the great ones are good enough to make up for the lot of rotten ones. Two of the best live albums of all time were recorded in fairly unusual settings, namely prisons. Both incarceration facilities, San Quentin and Folsom, are in California, and the man behind the microphone at both was the legendary Johnny Cash.

In 2006 Legacy Recordings released a deluxe three-disc version of Cash's At San Quentin performance, originally released in 1969, to widespread acclaim. This year Cash's At Folsom Prison, originally released in 1968 and having since become known as one of the most ground-breaking and beloved live recordings of all times, was given the Legacy treatment as well. The ambience of the prison setting can be heard throughout the album; the hard echoes from the bare concrete walls, and the resonance from bolted-down metal cafeteria tables are palpable in each and every song. While some audio engineers may cringe at the thought, the role of San Quentin blends perfectly with Cash's vocals, about doing time and living a hard-knock life, in a way that could never be orchestrated or mimicked. The interplay gives 16 tons of authenticity to the record, and the legendary performance would lend another level of credibility to Johnny Cash as a performer and artist. Thanks in no small part to At Folsom Prison, when listening to the man in black sing about killing a man in Reno, or eating his last state-issued meal, it was universally accepted that Cash had a true-life understanding of actually going through experiences, even if he never did hard time or stared down the executioner.

The three-disc Legacy reissue of At Folsom Prison (two CDs and one DVD), in its big fancy box, is accompanied by a thick, well-written booklet about the album and is quite a treat for any Cash fan. While the original issue of the album was cut down to 15 tracks from one show and one additional track from another, the Legacy box includes the entire recording of both sets that Cash played on January 13th, 1968. Not only do we get to hear the pre-show announcer on stage telling the audience of inmates how to react and behave during the concert, we also hear opening acts Carl Perkins and The Statler Brothers warming up the audience, a very rare and sweet treat.

Once Cash takes the stage, it is both interesting and heartwarming to hear the tracks that didn't make the cut to the original release, as well as the singer's rapport with prisoners. Knowing that such unique recordings have been out there for so long, unreleased, makes experiencing them now like unearthing a buried treasure.

Most of the tracks from At Folsom Prison are now well-worn classics: "Folsom Prison Blues", "25 Minutes to Go", "I Got Stripes", and "Greystone Chapel," the latter of which was written by Folsom inmate Glen Sherley, who was part of the audience during the concerts. Four decades after the initial Columbia LP, those songs are still enough reason to warrant repeated spins for the record, and with the added bonus material, the Legacy Edition is a must-hear for anyone with an interest in American music history.

The Legacy release also comes with a DVD featuring a documentary following Cash through the journey leading up to this legendary concert. Contrary to what one might expect, unfortunately the documentary falls fairly flat; not only does it not manage to live up to the expectations set by the audio material in the box, it is also rather unimpressive in the larger cannon of Cash film documentation. The documentary Johnny Cash's America, also released this year by Legacy, would have been a wise choice for inclusion in the box set, since it gives a more in-depth look at Cash, both as a person and as an artist. However, with the strength of the two CDs, the Legacy Edition of At Folsom Prison is still a great investment for anyone with a real interest in Cash and his music.

If you consider yourself a live album aficionado, you likely already have some version of this album. But even if you do, and certainly if you don't, this box set is most definitely worth looking into. The Legacy Edition of At Folsom Prison, quite simply, is one of the best live albums ever. Times two. It's amazing.

Reviewed by Daniel Svanberg
A contributing writer for LAS, Daniel Svanberg now lives in Boston, far far away from Sweden, where he once lived, although the weather is the same.

See other reviews by Daniel Svanberg



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