Solidarity seems to be the common thread that draws certain musicians to tall walls and concertina wire. Some of them are outsiders or rebels, some would be on the other side of the bars save for the fickle smile of fate, and some just have compassion for those grinding through the system. Whatever the case, these five live prison shows have outlasted any sentence The Man could hand down.
The Man in Black played two shows at Folsom that day. He had convinced his label, Columbia Records, to fund a recording of the live performance, so he scheduled two shows in case the first one went bad. The day before the show, then-Gov. Ronald Reagan stopped by Cash’s hotel to shoot the breeze. The stage was set up in the cafeteria with death row on the other side of the wall. Cash opened with, of course, “Folsom Prison Blues” and closed with “Greystone Chapel,” which was written by one of the inmates, Glen Sherley.
BB King and his six-piece band packed onto a small stage in the courtyard of the jail, with more than 2,000 inmates filling the rest of the space. With the popularity of Cash’s At Folsom Prison, the warden, Winston Moore, had invited King to play after seeing him on stage at a Chicago club. King made it clear that this wasn’t for his own PR but for the inmates, ultimately raising awareness of the poor living conditions in the jail. Of course, ABC Records made sure his PR was still attended to — and his performance is still one of his most genuine, soulful albums ever.
Not exactly a group that purposely heads toward law enforcement, Jerry Garcia and the band nevertheless trucked into Terminal Island to perform a tribute show for their good buddy Owsley “Bear” Stanley. Stanley, the band’s sound man and one of the largest LSD suppliers in the world, was an inmate at Terminal Island when the Dead came to play. The show is pretty tight and doesn’t take off on long jam runs. And you can more than hear Phil Lesh on bass.
For a punk band that was anti-establishment and railing for people to question the status quo, a correctional facility was the perfect venue. Lead singer and guitarist Ian MacKaye and his bandmates purposefully chose venues that bucked the mainstream, playing in an old roller skating rink, a vacated Safeway grocery store, and even in church basements. It was a DIY ethic that fans connected with. The show is available for download on Dischord Records’ site for a $5 donation, which is the same price as tickets for the band’s shows.
The lineup included Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Roger McGuinn, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and poet Allen Ginsberg, but the only live recordings of the show are clips from news coverage of the event. A playlist of the set list is available though. Their performance was meant to raise awareness about Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, a professional boxer who had been wrongly convicted of murder. Carter was one of 100 male inmates being housed at the facility at the time.