Rosanne Cash couldn’t stop fretting about Bruce Springsteen during her concert at the Folly Theater on Saturday. Aware that the rock icon was appearing at the nearby Sprint Center, Cash repeatedly invoked his name.
“Do you think Bruce is on stage yet?” Cash mused after completing her opening song. “Because I think the best thing I can do for you is to take you with me.”
While Springsteen deserves his reputation as an exceptional performer, the quiet intensity of Cash’s intimate 90-minute outing was unparalleled. Rather than believing they were at the wrong concert, Cash’s audience had reason to pity the people who spent their evening with Springsteen. Cash’s appearance may have lacked a raucous band and rousing hits, but the artistic mastery she and her husband, John Leventhal, displayed in a set of potent songs was singularly powerful.
The daughter of Johnny and Vivian Cash, Cash has been recording unflinching examinations of love and loss since the 1970s. Much like Springsteen, Cash is an exceptional practitioner of uncommonly mature popular music. Many of Cash’s daring insights served as staples of country radio in the 1980s. “Seven Year Ache” was one of five chart-topping hits that received a subdued treatment Saturday.
Cash’s original material was warmly received by the audience of about 800, but Cash seemed particularly enthused while performing seven selections from her 2009 album, “The List.” The project features songs her father recommended to her when she was 18. On several of these selections, Cash’s vocal approach evoked the stately grace associated with her father’s work. A compact but sturdy instrument, Cash’s voice proved capable of relaying the lonely despair of “Motherless Children” and the mournful yearning of “Girl From the North Country.”
In spite of the honky-tonk standard’s dire content, Cash joyously shimmied during a version of “Heartaches by the Number.” The vintage song about “a love that I can’t win” could be Cash’s theme song. “Tennessee Flat Top Box,” in fact, was the only song of the evening that didn’t wallow in pain, regret or despair. Yet partly because of Leventhal’s consistently immaculate guitar work, the concert never seemed gloomy. His shimmering solo offered glimmers of hope on “The World Unseen,” an otherwise devastating meditation of grief.
“That solo put the ring on my finger,” Cash said. “If it didn’t do it before, it would now.”
Although the pair repeatedly complained about the sound quality, the audience was treated to a clean and refreshingly hushed presentation. The volume was so low that coughs, sneezes and footsteps of patrons occasionally obscured the performance. The sense of intimacy was enhanced by the presence of Chelsea Crowell. The daughter of Cash and her first husband, singer-songwriter Rodney Crowell, opened the show with a shaky 20-minute set. She later joined her mother and stepfather for a lovely reading of “Come All Ye Fair and Tender Ladies.”
In her introduction to “Sea of Heartache,” Cash noted that Springsteen is featured on the version contained on “The List.”
“Is he here?” Cash asked hopefully.
He wasn’t. Leventhal’s sublime accompaniment, however, caused thoughts of Springsteen to quickly fade. The rock star from New Jersey wasn’t missed.