The story of Johnny Cash has been told and celebrated a 1000 ways. Joaquin Phoenix and Reece Witherspoon gave his story a Hollywood sheen in Walk the Line, his autobiography Cash is an international bestseller while his music continues to entertain music fans generation after generation. It’s a story filled with loss, love and song and it’s a tale that has filled the mind of seasoned entertainer Roger Dean since the age of 14.
Roger Dean plays J.R Cash well. As a man, he seems likeable and his jokes and crowd banter are well received. As a tribute, he may not be dressed in Cash’s signature black but his smooth white hair, his sharp grey overcoat and dark sunglasses all portray a man who knows how to recreate the ‘cool’ that Cash embodied in his own life. The effortless way in which he tells Cash’s own story also shows a man who really knows his musical history. However, as Dean tells of his struggles with finding success in acting and singing, I can’t help but think Cash is more than a musical hero to him. Johnny Cash is in fact a vehicle for Dean’s own celebrity. His jokes often spill into songs, he often adds himself into the Cash timeline and at the end we’re told we can meet the man himself in the foyer (something tells me we’re not going to meet Johnny Cash). The music belongs to the main man but the stage is filled with Roger Dean and I think he feels it’s important we know that.
However, as much as he’d like to be, Dean is not the protagonist of this show. The music is why we came to the Opera House tonight and, of course, the music is good. We’re working from the songbook of Johnny Cash and, to his credit, Roger Deans knows them all. The gospel years, the Sun Records years, the prison years and every golden hit right up to his collaborations with Rick Rubin are packed into 2 hours of musical tribute and storytelling. For the most part, Dean is faithful. He has Cash’s Tennessee drawl down to an art and his versions of songs such as I Walk the Line, 5 Feet High and Rising and The Ballad of Ira Hayes are honest. Yet small alterations to key Cash numbers smacks of arrogance on Dean’s part. Get Rhythm seems butchered while lyric changes to 25 Minutes to Go so Dean can make a gag about Simon Cowell is unforgivable. He’s not alone in these acts as his backing band is also guilty of overplaying key Cash songs. Part of the appeal of Cash’s early work was the simplicity that Marshall Grant and Luther Perkins brought to the table but tonight, on occasion, that simplicity is lost. Although these crimes only appear a handful of times thankfully, it does dull the performance for me.
However, as the crowd happily clap along, my opinions are obviously not shared by all. Roger Dean and the Lazy Boys are not the first (or best) Johnny Cash tribute act I’ve seen but I certainly cannot deny them their place in tribute land. The most important thing is that we continue to celebrate the amazing work of one of the greatest musical performers of all time.