LIVE: Marty Wendell and The Bluebillies @ Caffe Lena, 2/24/19
Review and photographs by Amy Modesti
Johnny Cash would have turned 87 years old Tuesday, February 26. His legacy will live on through his legions of fans, musicians and friends that honor a man who remained true to who he was as a musician, an advocate and a friend. To his fans and music critics alike, he will always be “The Man in Black.”
A full house of Johnny Cash fans came out to Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs to celebrate Cash’s life and music Sunday, February 24. The tables were full of patrons enjoying delicious desserts and drinks as they waited to hear the music from Greater Nippertown musicians The Bluebillies and Marty Wendell.
Hartford, NY classic country/bluegrass group The Bluebillies – featuring members, Melody Guarino (acoustic guitar/vocals), Mark Guarino (bass/vocals), Frank Orsini (fiddle/vocals) and Greg Bucking (lead guitar) – opened the show. They were impressive in the way they were able to seamlessly harmonize and transition from song to song in their 10-song set. It was also interesting to learn how Cash made an impact on their lives, as shown in their music choices and the stories that they told in between songs.
For their set, the band’s focus was on covering Cash’s songs that he either covered or wrote within his last decade of life. According to Mark Guarino, Cash was a courageous and fearless performer. He wasn’t afraid to take risks. He reached out to songwriters to write and record material that was outside his genre and comfort zone. Cash collaborated with Joe Strummer of The Clash to cover Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song”; covered Depeche Mode’s “Personal Jesus”; and put his own spin on Bruce Springsteen’s “Highway Patrolman.”
Mark and Melody Guarino recalled a meeting they had with Cash in the ’80s. At the time, Melody was a writer for a country music magazine, and she received backstage passes to attend many shows that she covered. When the Guarinos first met Cash, Mark had described him as “old and grey.” He used an oxygen tank to help him breathe. At the time, Cash was having health issues and needed two heart surgeries, but every time he performed, Cash was energetic and gave all he had to his fans. Backstage, he collapsed due to exhaustion. When Cash passed away, Melody wrote her song, “Johnny Cash Ain’t Gone,” a song with subtle hints of a horn parts one would hear in the intro of “Ring of Fire,” to pay homage to her friend. The song, performed to close out their set, was a fitting tribute to Cash.
Rockabilly Hall of Fame member Marty Wendell – featuring band members Sean Wendell (lead guitar/vocals), Mike Schoepler (bass) and Mark Shalonis (drums) – wrapped up the evening with a nice tribute to his friend. Wendell, who honored his friend’s birthday, also released his current CD, Rock and Roll Days: A Celebration of Sun Records, at the show.
To kick off his show, Wendell brought his patrons back to the days of Sun Studios where one would hear Johnny Cash record “Get Rhythm” on April 2, 1956. His set involved many historical tidbits about Cash and the songs that he had recorded and performed throughout his musical career.
In 1958, Cash transitioned from being on Sun Records to Columbia Records. It was at Columbia Records that he recorded songs as “Ring of Fire,” “I Still Miss Someone” and his classic At Folsom Prison album. Wendell recalled the first time he met his friend in 1963 through a talent agent. In a dressing room, Cash had pulled out his Gibson B25 acoustic 12-string guitar out of his case and gave it to Wendell to play a song. Cash enjoyed what Wendell had performed and in return, performed a few new songs that he had written but hadn’t yet released.
In 1968, Wendell became Cash’s opening act. “The song that got me on the Johnny Cash show,” exclaimed Wendell after performing his medley of At Folsom Prison songs, was “Hey Hey Mama.” It was a song that Wendell was most proud of recording and writing; not only for its outreach that it had on listeners within Vermont and New England, but it opened a door for him to be a headlining act for his friend, Johnny Cash.
From expressing Cash’s comedic side through his expressive lyrics in “A Boy Named Sue,” singing harmony with son Sean on “Sea of Heartbreak,” to performing an impressive rendition of “Folsom Prison Blues” that had the crowd clapping and singing along to every lyric, Wendell and his band were able to showcase the many sides of the legendary icon that they had come to love and remember. Wendell recorded and performed “Teardrops of Gold,” an original song that had come to him in a vivid dream two years ago. He had a dream that he was at a show in Athol, NY and Johnny Cash came to him and told him to write a song with that title. Wendell, waking up after the dream, wrote down the title and later recorded the song for his current album, as homage to his friend.
Wendell called upon The Bluebillies to join him on the Caffe Lena stage to perform their versions of “Far Side Banks of Jordan” and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” to conclude the evening, the audience clapping and singing along.
UPCOMING: Marty Wendell and The Bluebillies will be performing this show again on Friday, May 10 at the Strand Theatre in Hudson Falls and on Wednesday, July 24 at the Little Theater on the Farm in Fort Edward.