Johnny Cash – At San Quentin (1969)
It’s not as if he was idle after At Folsom Prison (my review here).
A couple compilations & a gospel album later, the Man in Black was back recording in a prison.
I was worried about two possible outcomes for this album:
1. When a movie is successful, a sequel is often hastily assembled. Sometimes it works brilliantly (Wayne’s World II), sometimes at best is forgotten/at worst it taints the legacy of the original (Speed II anyone?). I was worried it would be the latter.
2. A been there/done that feel (as At Folsom Prison would be tough to top).
Fortunately my fears were mostly unfounded as the shows were surprisingly different in tone and comparable in quality.
To decide a winner, a Johnny Cash Decathlon, pitting his first two live albums head to head!
At Folsom Prison (AFP) vs. At San Quentin (ASQ) Decathalon
Event 1: The iconic introduction.
AFP’s “Hello I’m Johnny Cash” was the first sound on the CD, immediately followed by applause. He waited until the music started on ASQ and even repeated the intro later on. Some might say, make ’em wait. I say lead with strength.
AFP 1, ASQ 0
Event 2: Side one songs (banter not included)
I listened to the reissue of each record, so for an attempted apples-to-apples comparison, I’ll compare the running orders from the original releases (sans bonus tracks). Strictly speaking about the songs, AFP will jump out to an early lead on the backs of Cocaine Blues, Folsom Prison Blues, and 25 Minutes to Go.
AFP 2, ASQ 0
Event 3: Side two songs (banter not included)
ASQ is on the board, thanks to a couple crowd-pleasing San Quentin takes & a rollicking rendition of A Boy Named Sue.
AFP 2, ASQ 1
Event 4: Best featured songwriter
Cash said prior to playing Wanted Man, “I don’t have to tell you who Bob Dylan is, the greatest writer of our time.” No convincing counter-argument here.
AFP 2, ASQ 2
Event 5: The June Carter feature
Jackson is probably my favourite Johnny Cash/June Carter tune and unfortunately for team San Quentin, it only appears in the Folsom set.
AFP 3, ASQ 2
Event 6: The multiple, not overly polite requests for water
On either edition, my daughter would advise Cash to say please. He never does. No wonder it takes so long for his beverage order to arrive! I’ll go with Folsom, as his voice was audibly strained after Cocaine Blues, a more urgent need.
AFP 4, ASQ 2
Event 7: Adventures in guitar tuning
At Folsom, he kept on going with an out of tune guitar. When a tuning issue arose in the San Quentin set, he struggled for a bit before someone tuned it for him. Though I admire that he persevered during AFP, the win goes to the comedic problem solving from ASQ.
AFP 4, ASQ 3
Event 8: Moment that bordered on riot-inciting
The atmosphere was very tense at Folsom, it felt a bit delicate, things could shatter at any moment. 25 Minutes to Go was probably where things got closest to the edge before settling down again. By comparison, Johnny seems happy to get the San Quentin audience riled up. “San Quentin, I hope you burn in hell” was as good a (ahem) fire starter moment as any.
AFP 4, ASQ 4
Event 9: Version of Folsom Prison Blues
The take on ASQ is no slouch, just not sure if it can compete with the version heard at the location itself.
AFP 5, ASQ 4
Event 10: Banter
In both cases, the biggest highlights are the non-musical moments. Perhaps because it was unprecedented, the first show (AFP) was a bit more restrained. Conversely, ASQ there’s a lot of back and forth, the long preamble to Starkville City Jail stands out and gets San Quentin the point.
AFP 5, ASQ 5
Perhaps unsurprisingly for two highly regarded albums, the decathlon results in a tie.
Which means the better album is…probably whichever one you heard first.
With Guy Ritchie movies, those who saw Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels first, prefer it to Snatch. And vice versa.
I heard At Folsom Prison first, so if you ask me…