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"Three hours, 23 musicians, 31 songs and, extraordinarily, not a
bum note all night," reports the
Independent on the Brighton Leonard Cohen tribute. Hmm, not so sure it was quite that perfect an offering (not that it matters - the cracks in the thing are how the light gets in, after all), but it was a damn fine show, and it's great to see anything so enthusiastic about Thoughtcat's favourite Canadian in
the national press.Today's Guardian meanwhile has a good review of the concert - not quite as thorough and obsessive as mine, of course, but then that's the difference between blogging and real journalism, I guess...
Mrs Thoughtcat and I made the spontaneous decision yesterday
afternoon to go to Brighton at absolutely no notice whatsoever for
Cohen tribute concert called Hal Willner's Came So Far For Beauty,
featuring such luminaries as Nick Cave, Jarvis Cocker and Beth Orton.
It was about 4pm when I noticed the gig - due to start at 7.30 - advertised
in the Guardian Guide, and despite the fact that the website said
RETURNS ONLY we decided to head down there and take a chance. We were
lucky with the trains, getting onto a fast at Clapham, and arriving
45 minutes (and one sausage sandwich) later in the seaside
resort so legendary amongst sarf Londoners like myself. Sadly
we didn't have time to go crunching on the famous stony beach but
we did get to the Brighton Dome Concert Hall well before the start
time. Across the road there was a show (part of the same current Brighton
Festival as the Len tribute) by
TheLadyboys of Bangkok, which we agreed would probably be a suitable
alternative if we couldn't get in to LenFest, but we needn't have
worried because within about 3 minutes of queuing for "returns" we
were in centre stalls seats and having a fabulous evening. Being a
LenNerd, I did of course scribble down the set list on my programme
as the show progressed, so "here", as Len
himself once sang, "it is"...
After an intro of the "Promenade" theme from Mussorgsky's Pictures
at an Exhibition (for some
reason), in a slightly unnerving reversal of the curtain call tradition 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 Celebrity Leonard 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 backing singers
Perla Batalla (long curly brown hair and flowery yellow & orange frock) and Julie Christensen (runner-up in the Tallest Celebrity Cohen Fan contest, bleach-blonde in a long black dress) contribute, well, backing vocals, really.
Musical director Steve Bernstein (short, bald, dark suit) plays a stunning trumpet solo, otherwise the performance is a little bit chaotic (but we'll forgive them because it's only the opening number).
and Anna McGarrigle and Linda
Thompson then come on and do a lovely acoustic version of
So Long Ago, Nancy. The McGarrigles (small, jeans, spectacles, acoustic guitars carefully fingerpicked) explain that they're there to represent Leonard Cohen'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 introduces The Handsome Family, who then don't appear because she's forgotten that according to the agenda 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.
otherwise "smoky" song.
Anderson (big trousers) then comes on with Perla & Julie
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 New York 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 bit tighter, and
virgins and angels are not confused. A really nice rearrangement, and Mrs Thoughtcat's 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 arrangerRob 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 Cohen never put words to, but the band builds it up a little too ambitiously and Hormel's guitar again seems a bit
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 basic piano style, it's a bit 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 to sing 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.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 it's fun to see a
schoolteacherly McGarrigle sister grooving away at the ivories as if she's been
given a rare break from playing hymns and now has free rein to boogie.
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; this has incidentally been 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, preparing itself to be mortified in case he tragically emasculates himself (er, vocally) in 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.
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. And is it me or does she invest a fair amount of sarcasm in the line "Sir I didn't see nothing, I was just getting
home late", pointing up the lameness of this excuse with all its present political ramifications? Donald Rumsfeld in his Senate hearing springs to mind, but, trying as I am to have a nice evening, I dismiss him from my brain immediately.
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.
Next up is
Teddy Thompson, son of Linda and Richard Thompson ("the Clapton it's OK to like" according to the oh-so-hip Guardian Guide), all blond hair and off-white suit. Strumming his acoustic guitar so he looks and sounds 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 these 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 minutes 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.
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.
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.
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. She's a tiny woman, and a couple of times she cuts a Piaf-like figure, especially with the bare feet. 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 (I mean, I'm straight, right, but even I can see how
gorgeous he is), 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
reverently quiet rendition of the prayer-like If It Be Your Will.
Julie and Perla stay where they are and The Handsome Family return.
"Oh! It's the Handsomes!" says Julie
Christensen, feigning surprise at another song by the country duo. It's not really clear whether she's being sarcastic or not. "We're gonna do a song about a raincoat now," growls Brett Sparks, and accordingly the band go into a very nice version of Famous Blue Raincoat, complete with a backdrop of rainstorm-blue lighting. Guitarist Smokey Hormel slaps on loads of echo and reverb to crank up the atmospherics.
shimmery jacket she started with. I'm just about to whisper to Mrs Thoughtcat "Where's her jacket gone?" when she (Linda T, not Mrs Thoughtcat) 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 I'm thinking she'll say that he asked if he could wear it, but the truth is much funnier. I can't remember exactly what she said he said, but it was something to the effect of "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 shout camply from the wings, "I never said that!", forcing Linda to say a second time that "he didn't say it at all, but..." and digging herself into a deeper and deeper hole. Anyway, the mother-and-son team then perform a very nice version of Alexandra Leaving,
surprisingly only the second song from Cohen's latest album so far. After finishing the song Teddy hugs his mother from behind and kisses her and for a moment it's all a bit sentimental-cum-Oedipal.
Nick Cave 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 doesn't quite come off, but 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.
short while, so are only able to stay for one more song, even though there's probably at least 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. A few rows ahead of us are three post-punk-type Brighton girls, all bone-thin with luminous twisted hair, black lace bras and tattoos. When Teddy sings "Give me crack and anal sex" they all fall about. 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." We don't have time to hear what song it is, so the mind boggles...
It's annoying that we had to leave the gig there, but having seen
some superb performances of nearly 30
Cohen songs we can't say we didn't get value for money. Of course getting home on the last (slow) train from Brighton, trying to fill our rumbling stomachs with cocktail sausages and crisps from Marks & Spencers, listening to the inane ramblings of drunk geezers on the other side of the carriage, and then catching another train to Kingston and then a bus back to Twickenham to finally arrive
home at 2am wasn't much fun... but even that didn't take the edge off it for me.
Roll on the Leonard Cohen Experience in New York next month!
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