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Johnny Cash at San Quentin Prison

“I remember walking through two sets of iron gates, and when I heard them close, I thought, ‘Man, I hope we get back out of here,’ ” Johnny Cash’s guitarist Bob Wootton recalls of his visit to San Quentin prison on February 24th, 1969. San Quentin was (and remains) California’s oldest prison, as well as the largest death-row facility in the country.

That day, as Cash stood onstage in his usual black suit, he was greeted by a sight that might have frightened a different performer: 2,000 hollering, charged-up inmates. But Cash, who always felt a special connection to prisoners, seemed to realize the gravity of the moment. “John was very solemn that day,” Wootton says. “We all were. It reminds you how much you take for granted. John connected with [the prisoners] in a way I never saw him connect with another audience.”

Cash had played prisons before – including an earlier San Quentin gig and, famously, California’s Folsom Prison. His show at San Quentin in 1969 was a full-on revue featuring the Carter Family, the Statler Brothers and Carl Perkins, and was shot for British TV. He performed with steely intensity, when he wasn’t cracking jokes to his audience. In a sense, he became one of them.

Cash treated his set list more as a guide than as a hard-and-fast program, but ended up catering to the inmates with songs like “Starkville City Jail” and Bob Dylan’s “Wanted Man.” Cash also wrote a song for the occasion – the twangy, brooding “San Quentin.” Its first line – “San Quentin, you’ve been livin’ hell to me” – prompted hooting and cheering from the crowd. “One more time!” they called out. “All right,” Cash said. “Hey, before we do it, though, if any of the guards are still speakin’ to me, can I have a glass of water?” The crowd laughed, then booed the guard.

Ike and Tina Turner American Tour

The Rolling Stones’ return to America in 1969, after three years away – a period that included Beggars Banquet and the death of guitarist Brian Jones – was what critic Robert Christgau described as “history’s first mythic rock & roll tour.” But on the 17-date spin through the States, time and again they were upstaged by their handpicked opening act, old friends Ike and Tina Turner and their combustible R&B revue.

The Stones met Ike and Tina among Phil Spector’s orbit in England. “I’d always see Mick in the wings,” Tina remembered of performances in the mid-Sixties. “I’d come out and watch him occasion­ally; they’d play music and Mick would beat the tambourine. He wasn’t dancing. And lo and behold, when he came to America, he was doing everything!” Jagger later admitted he “learned a lot of things from Tina.”

In the U.S., Ike and Tina won over a new audience with wild, sweat-drenched covers of the new rock & roll canon, including a brassy burst through the Beatles’ “Come To­gether” (“I said to Ike,” recalled Tina, “ ’Please, please let me do that song onstage’ ”). They spun through Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart” and a high-octane version of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary” that, by 1971, would become their biggest hit. Their take on Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” garnered its share of attention too, thanks to an orgasmic bridge that eventually got even raunchier. “I don’t think it can go any further,” Tina said in 1971, “because, as they say in New York, it’s getting porn­ographic.”

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