The Men in Black

The Men in Black
Performed by Chris Callaghan as Johnny Cash and Dean Bourne as Roy Orbison - Empire Theatre, Toowoomba (2 March 2018) -touring VIC, NSW, and ACT until end of May 2018.

Why do we love tribute acts? Braving the afternoon thunderstorm to see The Men in Black tribute to Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison, a capacity crowd at Toowoomba’s Empire Theatre provided the answer: performers as unique as Cash and Orbison – early originators of popular music as we know it today – deserve to be heard by their fans and also discovered by new audiences. And, for the musicians, it must also be difficult to resist the back catalogue of songs that today’s performers can only dream of.

Country singer Chris Callaghan warmed up the crowd with his renditions of a fine selection of iconic Cash numbers. The singer doesn’t try to emulate Johnny Cash. He has a cool, confident voice that makes the classic songs a pleasure to listen to. From his experience singing in pubs and clubs across the country, he knows how to add light and shade in the song selection (including less-expected numbers like ‘Orange Blossom Special’) and build to the crowd-pleasing favourites such as ‘Folsom Prison Blues’, ‘Jackson’ and ‘Ring of Fire’. Using Dean Bourne’s group – and two standout backing vocalists who added fun and verve to the stage – this support act will only get better with more performances as the band get in the groove with the Cash set list.

Dean Bourne’s Orbison tribute headlines the show. Fresh from a sold-out tour of Ireland, Bourne presents the much-anticipated Orbison songs as a selection of his own favourites – backed with a slide show that sets the scene for each track. The personal touch is a winner with the audiences – his rendition of ‘Danny Boy’ (having discovered an Orbison recording of the universal favourite) won over anyone who may have been sceptical about his prowess with Orbison’s infamous operatic range.

While not trying to completely embody the man, Bourne interprets the tracks in spot-on Orbison style – and his angelic voice hits every note to perfection. The almost chronological track list tells the Orbison story – ‘Ooby Dooby’, ‘Claudette’, ‘Crying’. In between songs, Bourne quietly tells us about his own musical journey. It’s effective and connects immediately – tales we all relate to, discovering LPs at the local record store, hearing the first Travelling Wilbury’s single on the radio and rushing out to buy it the next day.  

Both performers present the songs lovingly and respectfully, with just enough banter and background on each track. For me the only thing missing was more about the connection between the two men in musical history. Orbison and Cash were lifelong friends who met in the mid-1950s when they were both managed by promoter Bob Neal as part of his Stars Inc group of artists – including Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley – who all recorded on Sun Records in Memphis. It’s a fascinating story worth embellishing as the two stars intersect in this stage show. And, for those in the know, there is also a local connection: Johnny Cash has a big following from Stanthorpe. The town’s Johnny Cash Country Festival is a tribute to the Man in Black’s 1991 visit (while on the road with The Highwaymen) and fundraising concert for the Blue Nurses.

One thing is certain: we won’t see the likes of these two legendary stars again. Chris Callaghan and Dean Bourne are to be applauded for bringing them and their songs to an appreciative audience of music fans – old and new – as they now embark on a three-month tour of Victoria, NSW and ACT.

Beth Keehn

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