Cash backing: The Tennessee Three live at the Islington Academy, 19 March 2007
Forget tribute bands. There’s only one way to experience the spirit of Johnny Cash live now that he’s no longer with us - and that’s by going to see The Tennessee Three.
The name might not add up - there are five people on stage, two of which have drawn tonight’s close-to-sell-out crowd - but maths is the last thing on my mind as guitarist Bob Wootton and drummer WS ‘Fluke’ Holland lead the band through nearly 40 Cash classics at the Academy, Islington. I’d bought a ticket for a chance to just be in the same room as these guys - both of whom backed Johnny Cash in the original Tennessee Three line-ups (Holland since 1960; Wootton since 1968) - and pay my respects; I’m not prepared for such an authentic-sounding, searing performance, 10 years after they last played with Cash.
Though I don’t get to see his face for much of the set as it’s hidden behind a cymbal (the front row does have some disadvantages), Holland is a towering presence on the drums. And Wootton’s guitar - plugged straight into a Fender amp; there’s no messing with fancy effects here, thank you - sounds like it’s on day release from San Quentin. Completing the effect is some fine stand-up bass from Lisa Horngren, and a voice - Wootton’s - that pitches its tone uncannily close to Cash’s. The result is a bit dizzying - I find it as easy to lose myself in this sound as I do in the original Cash records. If the rapturous reception the band are afforded is anything to go by, I don’t think I’m alone.
Touring is clearly a family affair for Wootton. The two women at his side sporting acoustic guitars and pleasingly country-fried voices are his wife, Vicky, and daughter, Scarlett. The latter’s mid-set solo spot - renditions of Jolene and Fever - sit rather uneasily in an otherwise Cash-filled show, but otherwise the women’s voices are used sparingly and effectively, bringing to life Cash/Carter duets such as Daddy Sang Bass and Jackson superbly.
Toss in tales of life on the road with Johnny Cash, some thoughts on the movie Walk The Line, and a tribute to their old boss in the shape of a new song called You Walked Tall, and it’s not difficult to see why this audience is exhibiting some very un-London-like behaviour, refusing to let the band leave. So that’s what adoration sounds like. Three encores just isn’t enough.
But then, when you backed Johnny Cash and it shows, I guess things happen that way. (Boom-tish… actually, better make that boom-chicka-boom.)