As the new year is now upon us, it appears everything old is new again. Three upcoming tribute shows will give truth to that axiom, offering local music fans a chance to experience the music of acts that will never — well, maybe never — perform again.
James Garner’s Tribute to Johnny Cash is a 12-year labor of love headed to the Fox Theater this Saturday. Frontman Garner (no relation to the late actor James Garner, the star of “The Rockford Files” and “Maverick”) and his band perform a show whose music spans Cash’s long career as well as enlightening the audience to the man behind the mythology.
They touch on a few songs from the 1980s and Cash’s 1990s American Records comeback, but the majority of the show will concentrate on his mid- to late-1960s phase with backing band the Tennessee Three. This “television era” as Garner describes it, alludes to Cash’s prime-time TV show that ran from 1969 to 1971.
“There’s a lot of storytelling in the show about Johnny Cash,” Garner, 40, said. “It's kind of like watching the Biography Channel live. There are a lot of stories about Cash himself, the influence that he had, on the songs that we’re doing, what was going on in his life around those times when those songs were played. By and large, there’s some historical context or an anecdote about Johnny Cash that accompanies each song.”
The stories, far from being a stodgy academic affair, help deepen the audience’s awareness of both the man and his music, performed by a tight group of musicians with just the perfect amount of grit and polish.
“That’s a lot of the feedback that we get: that people enjoy the history. So when people leave the show it’s not just, ‘Oh wow, we heard a bunch of Johnny Cash songs tonight,’ it's ‘Wow, I never knew that about Johnny Cash. I never knew the impact he had. I never knew that he even did some of these songs.’ They leave with a much more well-informed notion of Johnny Cash and who he was.”
Audiences should expect a show that is a tribute in its purest form, not just to Johnny Cash, but to what he represented to popular culture and to Garner himself. Some of those stories are his own heartfelt personal recollections dating back to his adolescence, where he was a ravenous fan living in Hanford. He watched, listened to and absorbed anything with Johnny Cash on it in those pre-internet times and, at 14, even got the chance to meet the musician himself.
“I wanted to tell these stories about Johnny,” Garner said, “because I wanted people to leave the show learning something about the Man in Black that they didn’t know. That’s been the intention since day one.”
The weight and gravity behind Cash’s music and persona makes performing songs like “Folsom Prison Blues” and “Ring of Fire” relevant night after night for Garner. He even punctuates certain lyrics by wildly repeating them away from the microphone much like Cash used to do. The way Garner does it is less like a re-creation and more like spontaneous muscle memory.
“This is the only thing I’ve ever done, music-wise, and it’s the only thing I will do,” Garner said. “I’m not looking to do anything else. For me, it’s very personal. That’s why it’s always fresh to me. I’ve probably played ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ 800 times or 1,000 times at this point. And I’ll tell you, every time hearing it while doing it onstage is just like, ‘Oh yeah … that’s it.’”
Garner's isn't the only tribute show on tap this week. For Saturday's Pearl: A Janis Joplin Tribute at Wiki’s Wine Dive & Grill, local powerhouse vocalist Tracy Peoples will honor the late singer who would have turned 76 on Jan. 19. Peoples has the chops and the timbre to mimic Joplin’s trademark raspy growl and will have an all-star cadre of outstanding talent to back her up.
Joplin’s influence is still strongly felt nearly five decades later after her death of a heroin overdose in 1970. It’ll be a treat to hear songs like “Me and Bobby McGee,””Summertime” and “Piece of My Heart,” among others, being played by a band who’s put in the work to give Joplin the respect that she deserves.
And lastly, Led Zepagain will perform at the Bakersfield Music Hall of Fame Thursday. They’re one of the longest-running (30 years and counting) and enjoyable of the working Zeppelin tribute acts out there and give a fantastic show for fans of classic rock and of the bombastic British quartet itself. They've been at this so long — longer than Led Zeppelin, actually — that their level of consistency is uncanny. The aesthetics and acoustics at the Hall of Fame are a perfect mix to experience this show, but act quickly because tickets are almost sold out. I doubt you’ll get the full impact of “Stairway to Heaven” or "Kashmir" from the parking lot.
James Garner’s Tribute to Johnny Cash: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Fox Theater, 2001 H St. $20-$40, available at 324-1369; ticketfly.com.
Pearl: A Janis Joplin Tribute: 21-and-over show, 9 p.m. Saturday, Wiki’s Wine Dive & Grill, 11350 Ming Ave. Suite 260. Free. Reservations recommended, and diners will take priority. 399-4547.
Led Zepagain: Tribute to Led Zeppelin: 7 p.m. Thursday, Bakersfield Music Hall of Fame, 2230 Q St. $30-$35; limited tickets available at 864-1701 or bakersfieldmusichalloffame.com.