From the very first raucous, rollicking, foot-stomping guitar chords that rolled forth from the band’s introduction, it seemed quite certain to everyone gathered in the Garden Chapel— inmates, guards and free-staff alike— that somehow the legendary “Man In Black” had accomplished the impossible. Somehow the country music icon had managed to find a way to cheat the hands of fate and come back to perform one more time for the appreciative prisoners of San Quentin. He was here to celebrate that long ago memorable performance, 40 years to the day, when his by now well-known ballads had reached out to rock the walls for an appreciative audience in the venerable prison-by-the-bay.
With a performance that seemed indeed worthy of the 40 long years of wait, the looming specter of the late country music giant virtually lit up the stage in the dynamic person of Philadelphia native David Stone and his three-piece band, The Johnny Cash Experience. Accompanied beautifully by the powerful melodic voice of Dyann Mazzeo (June Carter Cash) on each of the notable Cash duets, the polished impersonator/showman from the City of Brotherly Love moved his band smoothly through song after lively song of a 24-song set in two nearly flawless performances.
During both a matinee and evening performance Feb. 24, the day of Cash’s original performance at S.Q., Stone and his band proved to over 500 people in the audience—including wardens both past and present— that he can produce on a promise to deliver “accurate, authentic, note-for-note representation of the Johnny Cash Show.” And deliver is just what they did!
From the characteristic Cash dip of the head, the stiff neck, the lip constantly lifting at the corner of the mouth in the trademark outlaw sneer, the deep-south style flourishing bow to “June Carter” on the duets, to the unquestionably Cash-like baritone backed up by the simple chords that so many in the audience grew up tapping a foot to, the show was typically Johnny Cash!
Stone approached the administration of S.Q. with the idea of a tribute concert to celebrate the appearance by Cash at the prison, during which he taped a live album. He bills his show, “The Johnny Cash Experience,” as total authenticity and Broadway quality, and none in the audience could doubt the veracity of Stone’s claim. Stone agreed to assume all expenses incurred for the performances.
Stone estimates that he has played over 1,000 shows since 2001, in clubs, casinos, fairs and small theaters primarily up and down the East Coast. From Philadelphia to Maryland, Boston to Miami and all points in between, and now all the way to S.Q., this man in black has wowed audiences like ours with excellent country-western entertainment. He formed his current band three years ago.
Drawing from a set-list of tunes which included many from the 1969 album Johnny Cash At San Quentin, the polished showman held the appreciative audience captive while doing his part to cement the legacy of the original “Man In Black.” The presence of the country music legend hovered in the chapel throughout each show.
In a crowning moment that was typically vintage San Quentin, North Block inmate Richard Poma took the stage with Stone to share his own unique talent with the audience. As Stone broke into the opening chords of the Old 97, Poma cut loose with his distinctive locomotive imitation that had the folks in the chapel thinking the old train engine was indeed barreling down on them. And the crowd roared its approval.
On the evening prior to the concerts Stone was given a walk through of North Block to allow him to meet some of the inmates. He was approached by Sgt. O. Nollette who inquired if Stone would be doing any of Cash’s old train songs. When
Stone assured him that indeed that would be the case, Nollette told the singer that he had just the man for him. Poma was summoned, an audition was given, and the result was some truly memorable moments that only served to highlight an afternoon and evening of truly unforgettable music.
Stone mesmerized the audience with his self-written ballad “Back Again,” a song of Cash’s return to a venue that he had performed long ago, S.Q. It was a song that could have easily been written by the late, great country singer himself.
The S.Q. band, Committed, a seven-piece funk and jazz band, opened both shows for Stone and used their mellow sound to set the stage for things to come. It was truly one more in a long line of memories for a prison that has so many.