Last updated June 26th 2017

Larger than life, the musical legacy of the Man in Black endures by virtue of Johnny Cash’s power as a singer-songwriter, but much is due to his curiosity, willingness to experiment, and a deep involvement with music that extended well beyond his own work and signature genre. Throughout his career, he covered songs by contemporary musicians, from his recording of three songs by Bob Dylan (It Ain’t Me Babe, Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right, and Mama You’ve Been on My Mind) on his Orange Blossom Special in 1965, to his American Recordings series (1994 – 2010) with covers of a diverse range of artists from Leonard Cohen, Tom Waits, The Beatles, and The Eagles, to Soundgarden and Nine Inch Nails. Whether he was singing a country standard, an original, or covering someone else’s song, Johnny Cash left a giant imprint on every song he sang. It takes a lot of guts to try to walk in those shoes, yet there can be no better way to honor his spirit.

Last night’s Tribute to Johnny Cash at Levontin 7, produced by Maayan Bar Yoel (MBY Management) and Natisha Shpaner (Indeed), was full of heart and rhythm, funny, and moving, alive with the spirit of Cash. A wide range of contemporary Israeli musicians took on the challenge of presenting their interpretation of his songs, including signature Cash, as well as tunes perhaps not as well known to Israeli audiences, and covers of his more recent, edgy covers.

Cheche Milito/Photo: Ayelet Dekel

Cheche Milito was not only brave enough to be first on stage, but opened with one of the songs most identified with Cash: Folsom Prison Blues, followed by Ring of Fire, bringing a youthful sincerity to his performance. Next up were Yaron Ben Ami and Sagol 59 with Tennessee Stud, The Long Black Veil, and Big River. Some people just have that rhythm in their blood, and these two sounded like Johnny was up there with them, jamming. Cry, Cry, Cry, and I Walk the Line were offered up in the deep tones of Danny Gilboa, and his bluesy guitar duet with Itay Mazilo.

Yaron Ben Ami & Sagol 59/Photo: Ayelet Dekel
Mika Sade/Photo: Ayelet Dekel

Gedy Ronen made my heart ache with his rendition of Trent Reznor’s Hurt. I’m a serial listener of Cash’s version of this song, and didn’t think that there was room in my mind to for more, but Ronen took it somewhere vulnerable and beautiful. Taking the song from the guitar to the piano, he infused it with the rare courage it takes to reveal something tender and fragile. Mika Sade  accompanied herself on the ukulele for a cover of U2’s One, every note in her crystalline voice an arrow piercing straight to the heart. Hagar Levy performed a soulful version of One More Ride at the piano. Where Cash is bouncy and lighter, Levy’s warm, full tones took the song’s country rhythms to a deeper place.

Tzad Gimel/Photo: Ayelet Dekel

Gur Yaniv gave a raw rendition of Cocaine Blues, a song performed by Cash at his famous 1968 Folsom Prison concert. Tzad Gimel (Roy Doron, Amotz Glass, Gil Gover, Noa Segal, Tal Shenhav) took my breath away with a cover of one of my favorites – Sunday Morning Coming Down by Kris Kristofferson, that began with a poignant a cappella and then swung into foot-stomping rockabilly. Then, they followed that with a hilarious version of Cash’s popular A Boy Named Sue (lyrics by Shel Silverstein). Transposed to Hebrew and Israel, the errant father names his boy Rachel (that’s with a Middle Eastern “ch”) and the encounter with destiny takes place in the IDF. Instant classic.

Rachel Yaron was joined by Maya Avramovsky on percussion for a delicate rendition of I Don’t Hurt Anymore. Then the two uncovered that electric guitar punk undercurrent in The Next in Line. Closing a rich and abundant night of music on a bold note, with respect to two great musicians, Hagar Levy returned to the piano with Itay Mazilo on electric guitar for Rusty Cage, written by Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell, and covered by Cash in 1996.