Clive John is not Johnny Cash. According to him, not even his imitator. “I don’t try to be him, I try to do my own version of it. I feel that’s a bit more respectful”. But the truth is that his resemblance with Cash is obvious, and that as the leader of Johnny Cash Roadshow, he has reached perhaps the upmost level for a tribute band: sounding more like Johnny Cash than Johnny Cash did, at least at some points of his career.
To a devoted and moderately crowded Bournemouth Pavilion, the Johnny Cash Roadshow covered almost every one of Cash’s big hits, as well as some other not so well known songs of his. The very first, ‘Folsom Prison Blues’, anticipated the rest of the concert: a solid band with a punching sound. Overall, the show was mainly focused on Cash’s late sixties and early seventies repertoire, as, in Clive John’s words, “that’s when I believe he was on his physical, voice range and performant peak”.
It is difficult not to note some kind of nostalgia on every single detail of the Johnny Cash Roadshow; despite this they do not try to imitate Johnny Cash but to celebrate him, as it was repeated a couple of times, their show was structured in such a way that there was a constant addition of new musicians: first June Carter, then the Carter Sisters, and finally a brass section. All of them, of course, accurate impersonations of the real June Carter, the Carter Sisters, etc. However, they also played some songs that weren’t originally written by Cash, but that had some kind of relation with him, such as ‘Flowers on the Wall’, by the Statler Brothers, or even ‘Hurt’, that although the Cash version is more famous (and also far better), it is an original of Nine Inch Nails. But, obviously, the main course were Cash’s all time classics, specially ‘Man in black’ and a joyful rendition of ‘Ring of Fire’, with which the show ended. The not so well known, ’40 Shades of Green’ was very praised too.
But returning to Clive John, it is true that it would be absurd to deny that the Johnny Cash Roadshow is, after all, a group of efficient musicians, but it would be equally absurd to deny that everything revolves around him. He has a parallel solo career as a country singer: his last album, The Spirit, was released in 2010, and he plans to record a new album soon. However, as he admits: “The Johnny Cash Roadshow has completely taken over my life.” And to the question of how is it to combine his career with being a tribute artist, he replies: “I would like to, but I do this for a full-time income, so the Johnny Cash Roadshow it’s just become my life. My own songs has just become a hobby, because I always thought that is better to do one thing very, very well rather than doing a little bit of this, a little bit of that”. Perhaps the problem – if there is a problem – is that he is too good at being Johnny Cash: he even stares like him. I personally think that Johnny Cash is a person very easy to impersonate, very recognisable, but very difficult to impersonate well. Clive John clearly succeeds at it, although he does not have the magnetism that Johnny Cash had: no one could possibly imitate that.
Having already ten years of history, and doing almost two hundred gigs a year, the Johnny Cash Roadshow is an expert ensemble that is perhaps among the best tribute bands in the world. Clive John, having started playing Cash’s songs in pubs of his natal Worcestershire, is a great exponent of an artistic form that I personally find extremely interesting and that is sometimes not taken seriously: imitators. Or better said – sorry for that – celebrators. The Johnny Cash Roadshow is the last chance for people like me, who discovered Johnny Cash after he had already passed; it is the closest we will ever get of attending to a Johnny Cash concert. We should be grateful for this opportunity.