Hal Wilner Leonard Cohen Project
23 May 2004
The Hal Wilner tribute to Leonard Cohen project was a one-off show in Brooklyn in 2003, which was repeated on Saturday 22 May 2004 and Sunday 23 May 2004 at the Brighton Festival in the UK. Where to begin?
There were wonderful vocals all evening from Nick Cave, Laurie Anderson, Linda Thompson, Teddy Thompson, The McGarrigle Sisters, Rufus Wainwright, Martha Wainwright, The Handsome Family, Beth Orton plus Jarvis Cocker was there for the UK show. It threw up some fascinating onstage combinations- Linda Thompson with Kate and Annie McGarrigle; Linda Thompson with The Handsome Family, Jarvis Cocker with Beth Orton.
Also, on a star-studded night, the two best vocalists on stage were Perla Batalla and Julie Christensen, i.e. Leonard’s backing singers in the 1988 and 1993 tours. They backed everyone else all evening, and the biggest ovation of the whole show by a mile was for Perla Batalla’s “Bird on a Wire”.
The backing band had three strings, trumpet, sax, double bass, drums and keys. I’d pick out Ron Burger’s accordian, harmonium, organ and piano as sublime all evening. Beautiful guitar work from Smokey Hormel – a couple of the definitive Telecaster sound solos too.
Well, on the downside three and a half hours of Leonard is about half an hour longer than the non-specialist fan would really want. I’d blame the inevitable everyone wanting an equal share of time for this, and there was obviously somewhat of a McGarrigle Mafia- they got three lead vocals, and their kids Martha and Rufus got three each too, backed by cousin Lily Lanken. In contrast, my personal favourite singer of the night, Laurie Anderson only got two lead vocals, and no collaborations. Jarvis Cocker got just the one. Well, he is a prat, but in the UK he’s the biggest selling prat of all those on stage. You did think that the McGarrigles and Linda Thompson were partly motivated to be there to showcase their respective offspring – and they were all worth showcasing. Martha Wainwright did a storming Tower of Song, and Rufus Wainwright competed only with Nick Cave for the most confident person on a stage title, and also got ‘Hallelujah’ to sing, which he did on the Shrek soundtrack album when John Cale declined to let his version which plays during the film go on the CD.
Teddy Thompson is very diffident, looking particularly shy in the four male singer finale, with Rufus, Nick Cave, Jarvis and Teddy taking turns on verses. That’s three major egos to compete with. BUT the man has the combined voice of Richard and Linda. He has Richard’s attack and phrasing (without his somewhat odd mock-folkie accent), but unlike Richard he always seems spot on the note. Both his solos were outstanding. I’ll seek his solo album.
The one disappointment for me was that after three great contributions in the first half, Linda Thompson somewhat fluffed her big solo number in part two. She had chosen the most difficult song to sing of all, Alejandra Leaving (from 10 New Songs) but there was a false start (wrong key?) and restart and it threw her for the rest of the song despite able vocal accompaniment by Teddy.
The Handsome Family were fun, and it’s kind of opposite their style to have a crack nine-piece band behind them, but they carried it off with aplomb and he had the deep voice to get near Leonard’s versions.
Usually, using female singers to cover Cohen is a better bet as it contrasts rather than competes. Oh, Beth Orton’s Sisters of Mercy was another stunner. There was too much to digest really! Anyway, on the 100 mile return drive and another 70 mile drive today, Leonard Cohen Live dominated the car system. The wonder of his lyrics were accentuated by seeing so many fine singers approach them in their own styles