Friday, June 27, 2008

Leonard Cohen Tribute Highs and Middles at the Montreal Jazz Fest

Yes, I was one of those people who stood around for an hour plus, in a huge sea of people waiting for the Leonard Cohen tribute to start. We were packed in like... packed things. This obese lady in front of me actually had a portable chair that she sat in most of the night, eventually falling asleep in the middle of the crowd. Behind, a group of Mexican ladies, perhaps 6 of them, all petite, squished into a space that was equal to the space the sleeping lady took up. Overhead, a camera boom swung back and forth, and I tried not to play the "what could go wrong" game. I was close enough to watch the singers, rather than the screens and that is what matters most.

The show was worth the discomfort in the end. The best performers were beautiful reinterpreters of Leonard Cohen's poetry. The worst ones were medicore at the worst, but its hard not to enjoy Cohen's deceptively simple music. I thought I'd give a play by play of what I could distinguish.

Chris Botti has been called the Jeff Buckley of the trumpet. Ringing over our heads he played Hallelujah, which was followed by a video of Leonard Cohen performing it with his band on the big screen. Although the two videos that punctuated the evening, Suzanne and Hallelujah, are probably the two best known Cohen songs (also, there was Closing Time), and perhaps it is best that no one individual sang these songs, I found it highlighted Cohen's decision of conscious not to show. I think this kind of no-show attitude is a bit graceless. All of these fans came to celebrate and listen to Cohen's works in his hometown. If I'm not mistaken, he was performing not a block away. The least he could do is wave at everyone and say a few words of blessing or appreciation.

One thing that struck me especially was the degree of nervousness a few performers seemed to have. When asked to cover with a story for Adam Cohen while he tuned his guitar, Serena Ryder stood in silence. Buffy Sainte-Marie paused momentarily in the Partisan, as if suddenly forgetting the words. Lhasa de Sela looked as though at any moment she would burst into emotional tears (although, she's always like that). Sometimes the performers seemed to be ushered on and off the stage like bewildered cattle, as if in a state of shock. The audience was enormous, perhaps more than some were used to seeing.

The highlight performances were wonderful. Steven Page stole the show with his dramatic performance of A Singer Must Die. At first I thought he was caught up in a bit of broadway theatrics... but he's also so emotive and so genuine. He gives a lot of his heart when he sings and holds nothing back. I'm a newly minted Bare Naked Ladies fan (though, I suppose, I've always been a bare naked ladies fan). Buffy Sainte-Marie has this deep, throaty voice. I always think these singers of the 60s and 70s have an authenticity that today's singers often lack. Although she seemed nervous, she sang the Partisan tinged with a bit of irony (she's a native American singer)

Adam Cohen, Leonard's son, was redeemed by his blood relationship to the man of the hour and a half, his charming personality and his willingness to share a bit of his life with dad. I think the audience hungered to hear about Leonard Cohen, perhaps even more than hear his music. Cohen performed with gusto, but I found him a bit sparse in comparison with some of the better artists who took the stage. His duet with Serena Ryder was far better than the solo, since she brought width and depth. Ryder is a gifted and admirable singer, anyway. Yet, of all the women performing, I think Madeleine Peyroux's Dance Me to The End of Love, was a sultry hit a la Billie Holiday or Diana Washington. She was a surprise for me. I'd never seen Katie Melua perform before, and I don't think I need to see her again. Euro pop stars. Nor do I think I ever need to hear Garou ever again. Quebec pop stars! However, where the singers fell short, the backing band rose to the occasion and filled in with richness and precision.

All in all, a wonderful tribute that would have been even better if the man himself had arrived on the scene

The list of performances:

Chris Botti: Hallelujah
Zachary Richard: Bird On A Wire.
Buffy Sainte-Marie: The Partisan.
Steven Page: A Singer Must Die.
Adam Cohen: Take This Waltz
Adam Cohen with Serena Ryder: Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye
Serena Ryder: Sisters Of Mercy
Madeleine Peyroux: Dance Me To The End Of Love
Katie Melua: In My Secret Life
Lhasa de Sela with Thomas Hellman: So Long Marianne
Lhasa de Sela: Who By Fire
Steven Page with Joe Lovano at the saxophone: Memories
Chris Botti (trumpet): A Thousand Kisses Deep with the words projected in the back of the stage
Garou : Everybody Knows
Michel Pagliaro: The Future
Giant screen: Leonard Cohen singing Closing Time
Salute from all the artists followed by Leonard Cohen singing Suzanne on giant screens.

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