A review of Hal Willner’s all-star ‘Evening of Songs by Leonard Cohen by the Sea’, Dome Theatre, Brighton, England, Saturday 22nd May 2004
I don’t know whether I’m just getting older, but increasingly these days things which at one time I would have known about months in advance seem to pass me by until the last minute, or, more often, only come to my notice when they’re already over. Accordingly, when Hal Willner’s second Leonard Cohen tribute concert (the first was held in Brooklyn, New York in June 2003), playing 60 miles away at 7.30 on 22nd May first came to my attention, it was around four o’clock that very afternoon. Not only was I not feeling like very much, but upon rushing to check the website, the gig (part of the recent Brighton Festival) was sold out, the Brighton Dome Theatre offering RETURNS ONLY. However, in a moment of spontaneity, my wife and I decided to head down there and take a chance, reasoning that if we didn’t get in we could always just have dinner, see the sea and come back. Luckily though we managed to scramble aboard a fast train, arriving just over an hour and one sausage sandwich later in the seaside resort legendary for its pier, stony beach, and of course Leonard Cohen’s concerts there, most notably as part of the great 1979 tour, many of whose moments were so graceful they found their way onto the Field Commander Cohen live album. Even better, after queuing for returns for just five minutes (“I was listening to them rehearse earlier – absolutely fantastic!” the doorman confided in us), we were sitting in centre stalls seats of this lovely 2,000-seater venue. That sausage sandwich was all we had to eat that night, but the show was our nourishment.
Being a LenNerd, I did of course scribble down the set list on my programme as the show progressed, so, without further ado – and as Leonard himself once sang – here it is
An intro tape plays the “Promenade” theme from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, suggestive perhaps that for the next few hours we will be strolling through a gallery of songs in a number of interpretations. (Or, as Greg later pointed out on the NG, another of Mussorgsky’s most famous works is Night on Bald Mountain, so maybe this is an in-joke..?)
The first song proper is a slightly unnerving reversal of the curtain call tradition, as the show opens with all the performers taking the stage at once for an en-masse version of There Is A War. Nick Cave (black three-piece suit and shirt) and Jarvis Cocker (jeans, striped shirt, lank hair and big glasses) fight it out for the title of this evening’s Tallest Gangliest Celebrity Cohen Fan. Rufus Wainwright (dark suit, open-necked white shirt, chest hair, sideburns) camps it up slightly to stage left while sister Martha Wainwright (short blue skirt, hands in the pockets of her too-small white jacket) bends almost double to her stylishly-too-low mike. Original Cohen band singers Perla Batalla (long curly brown hair and flowery yellow & orange frock) and Julie Christensen (bleach-blonde in a long black dress) contribute delightful backing vocals. Musical director Steve Bernstein (short, balding, dark suit) contributes a stunning trumpet solo.
Everyone then goes off leaving Nick Cave to sing I’m Your Man with Perla Batalla and Julie Christensen. The backing band (drums, trumpet, baritone sax, double bass, guitar and three violins) replace Cohen’s original humble Casio recording with a sleazy, deliberately-slightly-out-of-tune bar-room arrangement which fits the spirit of the song but is a bit hard on the ears. At the end Cave repeats the desperate refrain “I’m your man” waving his wiry arms in the air like a character in a rancid musical appealing hopelessly to the woman he loves. Perla and Julie can’t quite hide their amusement.
Kate and Anna McGarrigle and Linda Thompson then come on and in total contrast do a lovely acoustic version of Seems So Long Ago, Nancy. The McGarrigles (small, jeans, spectacles, acoustic guitars carefully fingerpicked) explain that they’re there to represent Leonard’s coffeehouse roots, adding that they get stools to sit on “because we’re old”. Linda Thompson (even smaller, in a spangly silver jacket) points out her lack of a stool and observes “I guess I’m just not old enough yet.” The song finished, Linda T introduces The Handsome Family, who then don’t appear because she’s forgotten that according to the set list she’s now singing Story of Isaac, for which she grabs one of the McGarrigles’ stools. A very nice version, again true to the starkness of the original, with a couple of nice bluesy twists.
The Handsome Family then do take the stage for a decidedly non-electronic version of A Thousand Kisses Deep. Brett Sparks (quiff, sideburns, goatee, Jarvis Cocker’s glasses, general cowboy appearance) is the only singer here tonight who has a voice anywhere near as deep as Leonard’s, while wife Rennie (long black and red dress, bright lipstick) harmonises over his baritone. Rob Burger’s piano is very nice but guitarist Smokey Hormel takes a solo which feels to me a tad loud and squealy for this otherwise “smoky” song.
Laurie Anderson (big trousers) then comes on with Perla & Julie to sing The Guests and play her funny violin-which-doesn’t-look-or-sound-like-a-violin. Call me uncultured if you will but I honestly never knew she could actually sing – I always thought she was “just” an off-the-wall performance artist who made installations of herself lying on floors doing spoken-word things inspired by Moby Dick. So it’s great to finally be corrected, as she sings this beautifully.
Martha Wainwright returns with an acoustic guitar to sing Tower of Song. I remember her doing a somewhat buskier version of it at the Leonard Cohen Experience on Hydra two years ago and singing “27 virgins from the great beyond” instead of “27 angels”. This time it’s a lot tighter, and virgins and angels are not confused. A really nice rearrangement, and our favourite so far.
The backing band then perform Cohen’s only instrumental, Tacoma Trailer, a beautiful Synclavier piece described as “somewhere between Chopin and Vangelis”. Young US pianist and arranger Rob Burger (straggly beard, Huck Finn cap) plays it on his ordinary piano which gives it a slight Liberace feel. The piece starts off really well, sounding like the best song Leonard never put words to, but by the end the band has built it up perhaps a little too much.
Rufus Wainwright then returns with Julie & Perla and sister Martha to do Hallelujah. Musically it’s nothing like Jeff Buckley’s hauntingly beautiful cover, with which all subsequent versions are doomed to be compared – in fact, owing to Rufus’s piano style, it’s a little metronomic – but his singing is great (even if he does have a habit of pronouncing the word “you” at the end of the lines literally rather than to rhyme with the last syllable of “hallelujah”), and moreover he takes a leaf out of Buckley’s version by singing both the original four verses and the four “alternative” ones.
The Handsome Family then return. “This is a song about a saddle and a whip,” says Rennie Sparks. “Like all good love songs,” adds Brett. They then ease into a delicious Ballad of the Absent Mare, to which trumpeter Steve Bernstein adds some fabulous mariachiesque licks. For the penultimate verse (“Now the clasp of this union / Who fastens it tight?”), the band lowers the volume and Brett Sparks speaks rather than sings the lines, rounding off the song like a voice-over epilogue to a beautiful movie (or at least The Big Lebowski).
The McGarrigles, Martha Wainwright and assorted others come back to do an upbeat, honky-tonk version of Came So Far For Beauty. This arrangement of a song which I’ve always considered a lament doesn’t really work for me, but musically it’s fun and also great to see a McGarrigle sister grooving away at the ivories like a schoolteacher given a rare break from playing hymns and now has free rein to boogie.
Nick Cave then comes back and tears into Diamonds in the Mine. On the Spinal Tap scale of 1 to 11, the volume has so far this evening never risen above about 4, but he cranks it up to, well, not quite 11 but certainly 9. This must be my least favourite Leonard Cohen song ever but Cave pulls it off so well, grimacing fiercely and kicking and punching the air at every opportunity, that it’s impossible not to love it. Cohen’s original ska-inflected version is ditched in favour of a no-messing-about, in-yer-face 4/4 rocker. Somewhere around verse two, a stage-hand, who looks all of 14 years old, runs on in front of Cave to reconnect a cable and then runs back off again, adding to the surrealness of the performance, and then something even weirder happens. So far this evening most performers have been referring to lyric sheets placed on music stands; I’ve found this to be a bit offputting, because while it means they get the words right, it has detracted from the spontaneity of some of the performances. When Cave comes on for this number he whips the lyric sheet off the stand and clutches it in one hand and the mike in the other, using the sheet as a prop rather than a guide. In doing so however he somehow manages to tangle his microphone lead around the stand, and at one point he yanks the mike so hard that the back of the stand falls off, exposing the lamps that light up the lyric sheets, so they’re now glaring out beside him as if in sympathy with his furious delivery. Cave, now sneering to stage right, doesn’t notice this, nor does he realise that the lead is stretched almost taut, so for the last verse the audience is on the edge of its seat, hoping to goodness he doesn’t disconnect himself mid-rage. Thankfully this doesn’t happen, the song finishes without further incident, and – partly from relief, I think – the audience gives him the biggest round of applause so far.
Julie Christensen then brings us all back to earth with an excellent rendition of A Singer Must Die, backed up very sympathetically by the house band. There are drums on this version, unlike the original, lending a kind of military flavour to the “courtroom of honour” imagery, and with Christensen’s short, shiny blonde hair done up in a slightly old-fashioned style and her plain long black dress there is a definite Marlene Dietrich/Blue Angel/Night Porter feel to the whole thing.
Beth Orton (long hair over half her face; simple, silky, almost transparent white frock) comes on next to resounding applause and sings Stories of the Street. So far this evening the lighting has been subtle and neutral, but for this song Orton is backdropped in lime green, echoing the suitably uneasy (and excellent) arrangement of shuddery violins and spooky backing vocalisations by Julie & Perla. This is the first time I’ve consciously heard Orton sing and I’m mightily impressed by the feeling she invests in the haunting imagery of the song, which sounds like it could have been written and recorded yesterday.
Next up is Teddy Thompson, son of Linda and Richard Thompson, all blond hair and off-white suit. Strumming his acoustic guitar so he looks uncannily like a young Bob Dylan, he eases into a lovely version of Tonight Will Be Fine, slowed from the original 4/4 to a tender 6/8 with a few chords and beats changed interestingly here and there. For me, this is what events such as this, and cover versions in general, are all about – not xeroxing the original but rendering your own interpretation. Thompson does this so well he makes it all his own, in particular lending the freshness of youth to the lines, “Sometimes I see her undressing for me / She’s the soft naked lady love meant her to be / She’s moving her body so brave and so free / If I’ve got to remember, that’s a fine memory.”
Jarvis Cocker then comes on for the first time since the mob-handed opening number. He takes the mike and says, “If any of you are sitting there with your legs crossed or dying for a drink, I’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is that this is the last song before the interval. The bad news is it’s nine minutes long.” There’s much laughter, and then he urges us to “Stick with it!” Nobody’s about to run out though if they can help it, as the rarely-seen Pulp star, accompanied by Beth Orton, begins a typically laconic version of the even-more-rarely-heard Death of a Ladies’ Man. It’s a great choice for the unlikely sex symbol, and his dry delivery and Sheffield accent turn the song instantly into a Pulp number, the more so for the funny little moves he does to “act out” certain lines – holding up a thread of cotton and dropping it as he sings “The man she wanted all her life was hanging by a thread”, laying his finger under his nose for “his working-class moustache” and, best of all, giving his lanky hips a copyright Cocker sway to approximate “his cocky dance”. I’m not sure if the song does last nine minutes but with its several false endings it probably feels like it for anyone who is actually crossing their legs. Brilliant stuff, and a superb ending to a fantastic first set.
After the interval – in which there is a queue for the gents as well as the ladies (I choose the gents) – and people begin milling back to their seats, the house band apparently starts tuning up, but after a few moments it becomes clear that they’re actually improvising on Improvisation. This is followed by the McGarrigle Sisters who come on and sing You Know Who I Am, again approximating the original, sparse Cohen arrangement.
Martha Wainwright follows and sings The Traitor. The backing band start with a slightly warped version of the original instrumental introduction to the song; so far, so good, but after that there’s a dicey moment as Martha rushes the last line of the first verse, leaving the band a few beats behind. It’s not clear whether the band are playing the original arrangement and Martha is singing a different one, or whether she made a genuine mistake to begin with, but either way from the second verse onward they all come together to perform the whole song the same way, and it works and it’s delightful.
Beth Orton then returns with Perla and Julie to do Sisters of Mercy. Despite what I said above about the importance of original interpretations when doing cover versions, this near-photocopy of the original is fabulous – perhaps it’s just more of a “classic” than some of the others, or is at least a bit more fragile than some Cohen songs, and so benefits from less messing-about-with. Whether the consumption of a bit more alcohol in the interval had anything to do with it I don’t know but this is the first song of the evening to attract applause and whoops as it starts.
The Handsome Family come on again, Rennie Sparks now armed with a banjo. “We’re bringing the white trash to the party now,” she says, laughing, and they and the band launch into a full-on country-stomp version of Heart With No Companion, complete with bluegrass fiddle solo and some fine twangy guitar – all in perfect keeping with Leonard’s own self-confessed country roots.
Perla Batalla then steps to the front of the stage, now barefoot and with her bubbly long hair spilling all over the shop. “I let my hair down because my daughter said to me ‘You look like a dork’,” she explains to much laughter. Then she says that the song she’s about to sing is “my favourite of all Leonard Cohen’s songs, I mean, if I had to choose a favourite, you know, if someone was holding a gun to my head and asked me what it was, I’d say this one.” She then does a passionate version of Bird on the Wire, not only without recourse to those damn lyric sheets but with her eyes clamped shut for the entire song. A tiny woman, at times cutting a Piaf-like figure, she gets very nearly a standing ovation, or certainly the longest and loudest round of applause of the whole evening.
Rufus Wainwright returns and sings an equally passionate Chelsea Hotel No. 2. I have to say how much difference it makes to the interpretation of these songs when men, especially, sing them without accompanying themselves on guitar, piano or any other instrument: it’s hard to explain the difference exactly, but the songs just seem less “folky” and more interesting. Certainly, Wainwright’s magnetic performance of this is the more so for the fact that he’s just singing: taking centre stage, the mike on a stand, his eyes closed, his hands held out and gesturing, his legs apart, his rings glinting in the lights, the first few buttons of his shirt open, and completely into the lyric, he turns this into more or less a torch song, exploiting the sexual ambiguity of the words (no gender is ever mentioned, after all) to heartbreaking effect. Even the simple lyrical change of “We were running for the money and the flesh” into “We were living for the money and the flesh” seems to have deeper, more desolate resonances. Another outstanding reinterpretation.
Laurie Anderson now comes back with Perla and Julie and her funny violin for a sumptuous and reverently quiet rendition of the prayer-like If It Be Your Will, after which Julie and Perla stay where they are and The Handsome Family return. “We’re gonna do a song about a raincoat now,” growls Brett Sparks, and accordingly the band put on a very stylish Famous Blue Raincoat, complete with a backdrop of rainstorm-blue lighting and cranked-up atmospherics from Smokey Hormel’s echo- and reverb-laden guitar.
Linda and Teddy Thompson come back on. Linda is now wearing a white jumper in place of the spangly, shimmery jacket she started with. I’m just about to whisper to my wife “Where’s her jacket gone?” when she (Linda T, not my wife) says, “In case any of you are wondering what happened to my sparkly jacket, Rufus Wainwright came up to me backstage and said…” And here we’re thinking she’ll say that he asked if he could wear it, but the truth is much funnier: “…he said ‘I really like your jacket’ – but what I heard him say was ‘That jacket makes you look like Fat Elvis!'” There’s much laughter and groaning, following which Linda T adds urgently, “That’s not what he said, it’s just what I heard!” Rufus can then be heard to complain from the wings, “I never said that!”, forcing Linda to say a second time that “he didn’t say this at all, but…” and digging herself into a deeper and deeper hole. Anyway, the mother-and-son team then perform a lovely Alexandra Leaving, surprisingly only the second song from Cohen’s latest album this evening, and finish with a big bear-hug.
Nick Cave now returns with Perla and Julie for a nervy reinvention of Suzanne, several times the speed of the original (which in other words brings it up to about normal speed). It’s an interesting idea, and Cave even singing the song at all (especially given his other more obvious choices) certainly throws new light on it.
It’s now 10.30 and annoyingly we have to catch the last train back to London at 11, so are only able to stay for one more song, even though there’s probably another half an hour of the show left. Thankfully the last song we hear is one of the best all night. Teddy Thompson comes back on and says to the audience, “How’s it going?” We shout back that it’s going very well, thank you. “It’s funny that, innit?” he says. “Nobody’s said anything for the whole gig.” Someone in the audience, thinking this is an invitation to a conversation, starts trying to talk to him, to which he responds by turning to the band and saying, “Well, I’m ready!” and adding his Dylanesque strums to a storming version of The Future.
During the ensuing applause we become the sort of people we hate by forcing half the row to get up to allow us out, and as we leave the auditorium Rufus Wainwright is saying “I dedicate this next song to Doris Day,” and he and Julie & Perla launch into Everybody Knows.
It’s annoying that we have to leave the gig there, but having seen some superb performances of nearly 30 Cohen songs by a fantastic range of fine artists, we can hardly say we didn’t get value for money. In the interests of completeness, I will now hand over to Cohen cohort Duncan Bartlett, who attended the whole concert…
Winter Lady follows with Kate and Anna McGarrigle taking lead vocals and Martha Wainwright backing. The sound is rather tremulous and it seems odd to give such a feminine reading of a song which opens with the lustful male line “Trav’ling lady, stay awhile/ until the night is over.” (This was in fact a strange thing about the whole night – the number of times female vocalists took on Cohen songs which were written from a very masculine point of view.)
Julie Christensen and Perla Batalla then duet on Anthem, which is for me the highlight of the show. “You know, it’s amazing how many of these songs sound like they were written yesterday, but Leonard has that knack,” notes Julie before singing the song. The arrangement is rich, almost like a ballad from a stage musical, and her voice is high and clear. But the lyrics bear out what Julie said in her introduction – particularly these lines, sung solo by Perla: “I can’t run no more/ with that lawless crowd/ while the killers in high places/ say their prayers out loud. But they’ve summoned up a thundercloud/ and they’re going to hear from me.” At this point, a few voices from the audience whoop in agreement, presumably thinking of the political resonance of the song in relation to Iraq. Perla responds by calling back “And I hope from you too!” to applause from the crowd. A powerful moment.
Don’t Go Home With Your Hard-On is a bizarre choice for the finale. Nick Cave, Rufus Wainwright and Jarvis Cocker handle most of the vocals but everyone joins in and the band have fun with raucous rock guitar and blasting horns. A bit shambolic but a real hoot. (RC notes: The Independent review calls this “a bawdy version” during which Cocker and Cave can’t resist the temptation to “illustrate” the refrain.)
There’s no encore or curtain call despite a long and deafening standing ovation from the crowd, so the show comes to end at about 11pm when the houselights go up. I wondered if we’d get well-known songs like So Long Marianne or Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye to mark the end of the event but it wasn’t to be. What I really liked about the evening, though, was the way in which the show re-interpreted some of the more obscure Cohen songs such as A Thousand Kisses Deep, Everybody Knows and Anthem. It was especially wonderful to hear Alexandra Leaving, which has become my all time favourite Cohen song. For me, just to be submerged in the world of those songs for a few hours was an enormous privilege. I saw Cohen three times during his visits to the Royal Albert Hall in London in 1998 and 1993 and I will treasure those memories forever. This was among the most enjoyable nights I have had since then.
Thanks to Duncan Bartlett for providing the italicised paragraphs and to Julie Christensen, Prentiss Mann and Perla Batalla.
Further reading on these concerts:
The Independent (5-star review)
The Guardian (4-star review)
The Telegraph (“Stunning celebration of beauty and bleakness”)
The Observer (“Beauty and the feast”)
“We Love Leonard Cohen”, a preview of the gig with comments from the Handsomes and others in The Independent