Despite an all-star cast and the embarrassment of riches contained in the blue chip Leonard Cohen songbook, the four-hour running time of this tribute show to the septuagenarian singer seemed like too
Despite an all-star cast and the embarrassment of riches contained in the blue chip Leonard Cohen songbook, the four-hour running time of this tribute show to the septuagenarian singer seemed like too much of a good thing on paper. But the second of a two-night run in Dublin proved a thoroughly absorbing, occasionally maddening and sometimes transcendent experience.
Initially performed in Brooklyn's Prospect Park in 2003 as part of the Celebrate Brooklyn Festival, the show's core cast has been sporadically reconvened by artistic directors Hal Willner and Janine Nichols for shows in Brighton, England, and Sydney -- the latter providing the basis for Lian Lunson's documentary "Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man."
Some of the performers have dropped out - most notably the McGarrigle and Wainwright family, whose less-than-amicable departure is catalogued with jaw-dropping candour in Willner's program notes -- to be replaced for these shows by first-timers Lou Reed, Cohen's fellow Canuck Mary Margaret O'Hara, recent Cohen collaborator Anjani and local boy Gavin Friday, who is well known in Dublin for his close association with Bono.
The night began with Nick Cave's moody reading of "Avalanche" and ended with a stirring a cappella chorus of 'Winter Lady', sung by a half-circle parade of the various chanteuses, including sometime Cohen backing singers Perla Batalla and Julie Christensen.
In between, there were some radical re-interpretations of Cohen's work with the house band, under Steven Bernstein's direction, showing an impressive versatility, sometimes adding lush string and brass arrangements to material that was originally recorded either with the most minimal instrumentation or with those cheesy-sounding synths.
Teddy Thompson stepped out from under the shadow of his famous parents to deliver a galvanizing ska/reggae take on "Waiting for the Miracle" and a politically charged sliced of Dylan-esque social commentary on "The Future," as he sang with total conviction, "I have seen the future... and it's murder".
Lou Reed offered an amped-up remodeling of "One of Us Cannot Be Wrong," but this paled in comparison to his raw, rapturous reading of "The Stranger Song," which he made completely his own. Better still was his duet with Christensen on "Joan of Arc," a pooling of charisma and vastly different singing styles that proved one of the highlights of the evening. Reed's rough'n'ready growl the perfect foil for Christensen's warm, sonorous tones.
The joker in the pack was Friday and O'Hara's collaboration on "Hallelujah." A rare live appearance from the reclusive O'Hara should have been an event to be savored. Alas, the pair strangled the life out of a song that, thanks to John Cale and Jeff Buckley, has become one of Cohen's best-loved standards. Friday's overly melodramatic delivery milked it dry of all its poetry, and O'Hara's idiosyncratic scat seemed to want only to draw attention to itself.
Worse was to come after the interval, when O'Hara needlessly took three attempts to get through "The Window," publicly admonishing Chris Spedding in the process, whose guitar playing had been flawless all night.
Anjani's smoky supper club renditions of "Blue Alert" and "Never Got To Love You" charmed the audience, with Bernstein's muted jazz trumpet making the listener feel as though they were in Ronnie Scott's rather than an impersonal docklands arena with temporary seating.
But Antony (of Antony & the Johnsons) probably made the biggest impression of all the performers on the night. His voice sounds like a gift from the gods and Cohen's complex tales of love, lust, betrayal and redemption must equally seem, to him, like manna from heaven.
During the most perfectly measured renditions of "The Guests" and "If It Be Your Will," Antony seemed to completely lose himself in the music; a master interpreter communing intimately with a master songwriter -- so much so that the audience spontaneously broke into applause when he reappeared in the second half.
Beth Orton and the Handsome Family, respectively, delivered faithful, straightforward readings of the better-known songs in the Cohen canon. But thank heavens for Jarvis Cocker, who was one of the few artists in the course of the four hours to actually speak to the audience. This event was crying out for an MC; someone to introduce the acts -- not all of whom were household names -- and to acknowledge the crowd as participants in the show.
What's more, the ex-Pulp frontman brought a much-needed levity and comic relief to proceedings which, until his hilariously racy duet with the heavily pregnant Orton on "Death of a Ladies' Man," had steadily built up an almost suffocating sense of reverence and solemnity towards its subject.
Using the mic lead as a whip, Cocker effortlessly strode around the stage like the born showman that he is, using his trademark dramatic flourishes to locate the coal-black humor in "I Can't Forget." But this was trumped by his version of "Chelsea Hotel #2" -- a song whose narrative seems so personal and tied to its author that to attempt a cover seems faintly preposterous and doomed to failure.
But, miraculously, Cocker made this tale of snatched sex in a grubby hotel room sound like the quintessential Pulp song: wry, funny and bitingly honest. It was no longer Cohen's bittersweet reminiscence of Janis Joplin but the audacious kiss-and-tell of a working class lad from Sheffield.
The other singer who was in a refreshingly playful mood was Laurie Anderson, who used a vocoder to bring her voice down to a bass-baritone for "Dear Heather," an effect which mimicked Cohen's famously lugubrious drone.
It was well past midnight when Cocker led the rousing finale of "Memories," with all the artists congregated on stage to sing us home. There was only one singer conspicuous by his absence: the man himself.
Here is the "Came So Far for Beauty" set list:
"Avalanche" - Nick Cave
"Seems So Long Ago, Nancy" - Robin Holcomb
"One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong" - Lou Reed
"A Thousand Kisses Deep"- The Handsome Family
"The Guests" - Antony
"Dear Heather" - Laurie Anderson
"In My Secret Life - Laurie Anderson
"Who By Fire" - Gavin Friday
"Hallelujah" - Gavin Friday & Mary Margaret O'Hara
"Blue Alert" - Anjani
"Dress Rehearsal Rag" - Nick Cave
"Stranger Song" - Lou Reed
"So Long, Marianne" - Beth Orton
"Tonight Will Be Fine" - Teddy Thompson
"Death Of A Ladies' Man" - Jarvis Cocker & Beth Orton
"Because Of" - Mary Margaret O'Hara
"The Window" - Mary Margaret O'Hara
"I Can't Forget" - Jarvis Cocker
"Sisters Of Mercy" - Beth Orton
"Joan Of Arc" - Lou Reed & Julie Christensen
"Closing Time" - Robin Holcomb
"Bird On A Wire" - Perla Batalla
"Chelsea Hotel" - Jarvis Cocker
"Waiting For The Miracle" - Teddy & Kamila Thompson
"If It Be Your Will" - Antony
"Famous Blue Raincoat" - The Handsome Family
"Suzanne" - Nick Cave, Perla Batalla and Julie Christensen
"Never Got To Love You" - Anjani
"Everybody Knows" - Gavin Friday
"You Know Who I Am" - Laurie Anderson & Antony
"Anthem" - Perla Batalla & Julie Christensen
"The Future" - Teddy Thompson
"Memories" - Jarvis Cocker & cast
"Winter Lady" - the female cast