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I just don't want to go through what I call the Interesting Music Phase. That really means 'We just don't get it.'-- Bono, 2004

Johnny Cash: Tribute in Song to the Man in Black

Everyone wore black, and many wore long, tapered gunslinger's jackets as they paid sartorial tribute, as much as anything else, to Johnny Cash in a concert at the Hammerstein Ballroom on Tuesday night.

Until the last minute it was an open question whether Cash himself would perform. In 1997 Shy-Drager syndrome, a neurological disorder related to Parkinson's disease, was diagnosed, and Cash, 67, has been absent from stages for 19 months.

The advertisements for the concert, which was taped for a TNT Masters Series special, did not indicate that he would attend, and no reference was made to his impending appearance during the two-and-a-half-hour proceedings.

Antithetical to the haunted, solitary nature of Cash's songs, the production was nearly as Hollywood as New York gets. Actor Jon Voight was the host, and introductions were read off a prompter by Kevin Bacon and Tim Robbins.

But the music was remarkably full-hearted despite numerous retakes, sometimes of entire songs, for the cameras. Part of that stemmed from the bar-band gusto of the Mavericks, acting as the house band. And part of it arose from many striking versions of Cash's simple, moving songs.

June Carter Cash, Cash's wife, took the stage with an Autoharp for a high point of the evening. She sang the 1963 song "Ring of Fire," reminding the audience that Cash wrote it when they first fell in love. "It's a scary song," she said. "And he was kind of scary at that time."

The song is practically a license requirement for alternative-country bands, and somewhere along the way it has been remade as a party tune. Ms. Cash, backed by Don Herron on fiddle and Marty Stuart on guitar, sang it with a thin, wavering mountain voice, bringing it back to an exhilarated, slightly paranoid poem about losing control of one's emotions.

U2, in Dublin while recording a new album, was represented by its video performance of a reggae version of "Don't Take Your Guns to Town," which was followed by a film clip detailing Cash's humanitarian work on behalf of American Indians and convicts.

It noted that he performed for soldiers in Asia during the Vietnam War, even though he opposed the war, and described Cash as a man who never "let principles stand in the way of compassion." The Mavericks played "The Man in Black," devoted to supporting the underdog.

Kris Kristofferson performed Cash's "Ballad of Ira Hayes," about an American Indian marine who helped raise the flag at Iwo Jima; a marine stood behind him during the song and played taps at the end. Then Trisha Yearwood sang Kristofferson's dissipation anthem, "Sunday Morning Coming Down." (Her typically wholesome presentation made one wonder whether she could ever be found drinking beer for breakfast, as the song's narrator does.)

Brooks and Dunn, the super-successful duo of new country, played "Ghost Riders in the Sky," strenuously mugging and grimacing; more sincerely, Lyle Lovett sang Cash's sweet small-town song, "Tennessee Flat-Top Box." Bruce Springsteen, touring in Italy, sent in a video clip. He praised Cash for tearing up boundaries, saying he combined "the social consciousness from folk, the gravity and humor from country and the rebellion from rock," and played Cash's "Give My Love to Rose" alone on the acoustic guitar, investing it with the best quiet earnestness he had.

Bob Dylan, also appearing on film, offered a wonderfully tossed-off band version of Cash's early song "Train of Love"; he took its word-stuffed chorus and raced through it, reshuffling its accents as only he can.

Wyclef Jean of the Fugees, with a guitar, black cowboy hat and accompanied by a bassist, sang Cash's recent ballad about murder, "Delia's Gone," in a surprisingly straight version, until he placed the action of the song in Brooklyn and flowed into a rap about being picked up in a Bentley. Dave Matthews performed "Long Black Veil," locating the desolation in the song, and was helped by Emmylou Harris' backup vocals.

Robbins, whose slicked-back hair and black suit made him look like the young Cash, read an excerpt from the Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison liner notes, a description of the experience of being a prisoner. Then the lights rose on Cash standing still and calm at center stage, in a black jacket with black stitching, looking a bit puffy. "Hello, I'm Johnny Cash," he said, giving his customary honest-fellow introduction and facing lights and cameras.

Standing in front of a quartet that included the bass player Marshall Grant and the drummer W.S. Holland -- original members of the Tennessee Three, his late-'50s band -- he thanked Sam Phillips of Sun Records for giving him his first break and Don Law, his first producer at Columbia, for artistic freedom.

He admitted that he was astounded by the "stretch of the arrangements" in the tribute concert, and mentioned that he had not performed in a long time. "Feels good, feels good, feels good," he muttered; he introduced the musicians, and that was it for small talk.

What could he sing but "Folsom Prison Blues"? He sang it gamely, without much energy but in the same commanding low voice as ever. Scratching out the dead-string chords of its introduction, he followed with "I Walk the Line." What could happen next but a full-cast sing-along? The show, predictable but with brilliant patches, will be on TNT on April 18 at 8 p.m.

© 1999 Reuters/Variety. All rights reserved.