- 06 Mar 20
It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, the major lift.
There’s magic in the music of Leonard Cohen, although I was immune to it for a while. Years ago, my mate Jim rang with an extra ticket to see Cohen in Kilmainham. Out of curiosity, and because I lived near-by, I agreed to tag along. Seats were laid out on the grass, close together, occupied by people draped in coats and blankets against the chill. Squeezed into my allocated pew, I was reminded of an outdoor mass I attended in Knock as a child. I lasted one song before I repaired to the bar at the side. As I stood there, initially wondering what the fuss was about, Cohen’s spell slowly started to work its way in. It was ‘In My Secret Life’ that finally did it. I was converted, won over, saved. The light got in, through the crack in everything.
The elements weren’t on anyone’s side at last year’s All Together Now Festival, unless you were of the anatidae biological family, but Cohen’s songs, as performed by the RTÉ Concert Orchestra with a variety of singers, brought their own sunshine. There was more magic. And that brings us up to tonight’s performance, the second of two here in the lovely Bord Gáis Theatre, which is purpose built for this kind of thing, having the added bonus of a roof.
There’s a roar of pain from the gods, I can’t see what’s going on from my spot on the floor despite much craning of neck, so I don’t know if someone’s taken a tumble or ill, but the performance is delayed for whatever reason. At last, a lonesome bell rings as the strings swell up to begin Avro Pärt’s ‘Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten’ and then take up its beautiful descending motif. It is an inspired opening choice as Cohen’s face is drawn upon the screen hanging overhead, as is Songs From A Room’s ‘Tonight Will Be Fine’ – and we already know it will be – to introduce this evening’s vocalists. There’s clarinet and banjo, and even a washboard, before the strings take over the clarinet’s melody as each of the singers – Phelim Drew, Suzanne Savage, Lisa Hannigan, Mick Flannery, and Moncrieff – new to me anyway – takes a turn.
“Good evening, Ladies and Gentlemen, I’m Phelim Drew, and this is ‘Democracy’.” Cohen’s songs are, for the most part, beyond criticism, although some of the keyboard-heavy arrangements and production on his Eighties and Nineties material have not aged well. Having this exceptional orchestra to employ easily side steps this problem. The song is, at first, driven by a positively funky electric guitar and then lifted by the backing vocals as the first “sail on” line comes in, and then by the horn line after “America”. A lyric that refers to the United States as “the cradle of the best and the worst” could have been written yesterday. Drew’s mid-range tone perfectly suits the material, and he is ably assisted by Suzanne Savage, already gone full showbiz sway, defiantly dancing in a pair of heels that would give Chris Bonington a nose bleed. Drew sees what she’s up to, but his stilted movements can only take the silver.
A guitar the sounds like it belongs in a desert introduces Mick Flannery, who seems slightly nervous as he wrings his hands but his gruff, barbed wire gargling voice was created to sing a song like ‘Who By Fire’. Savage is there again to take the high part as drum and string combine to lift that slightly sinister break. Savage then steps forward for ‘First We Take Manhattan’, the chicka-chicka guitar evoking a seventies cop show theme. Savage sells the song like she’s anxious for a commission and - though the strings go slightly saccharine in places - it’s a vast improvement on the original synth-heavy arrangement.
Organ and electric bass herald ‘Bird On The Wire’ which Moncreiff makes his own, although his chest-touching histrionics are perhaps a tad unnecessary. When the backing vocals and the woodwinds join him for the “If I have been unkind” section, the hairs on every arm and neck in the room rise up, and the affair is further lifted by a marvellous guitar solo that fully employs the sonic range of Leo Fender’s Stratocaster – Stevie Ray Vaughan’s chopping rhythm giving way to a single fret tap. Hats off to Moncrieff for honestly admitting that he was for the most part unfamiliar with Cohen’s work when he was asked to contribute, he certainly got on the inside of that one.
Lisa Hannigan sings ‘Came So Far For Beauty’ – her vocal mannerisms often leave me cold but she handles this well and the harp glissandos, the pizzicato on the violins, and the quasi-colliery band finish are magnificent. We then get the first of the spoken word sections – and Cohen is one of the very few figures in popular music whose lyrics can stand up alone – delivered by Kate O’Toole – Peter’s daughter – and Tony Flynn – Mr Flynn’s son. Lines such as “we’re tired of being white and we’re tired of being black” from ‘Tired, or “because you will not overthrow life, you cannot breathe” from ‘The Asthmatic’, and especially something like “the last time that I saw her she was living with some boy, who gives her soul an empty room and gives her body joy” from ‘Death Of A Ladies’ Man’ would give any typewriter jockey pause and make them question their own self-belief. The delivery from the two thespians is impeccable.
The kind of strings you used to hear on Scott Walker songs like ‘It’s Raining Today’ are followed by the kind of horns once favoured by Elmer Bernstein, and Mick Flannery’s voice breaks movingly as Jane comes by with a lock of your hair in ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’. As the strings take the main melody to a timpani-driven rhythm, you again marvel at these deathless songs. I’m not entirely sure the following version of ‘Suzanne’ works as well, however. Hannigan and Flannery sing it alone at his keyboard and the shy and sensitive shtick tempers the lyric’s power. That being said, it receives some of the night’s loudest cheers, so it might be just me.
From one extreme to another as ‘You Want It Darker’ is transformed into the Bond theme that never was – conga drums are struck, horns blast, and the insistent string line sounds almost like a sequencer as Tony Flynn acts out the spoken lyric. Then – Jesus – Savage goes full Montserrat Caballé before the timpani calls a sudden stop. Worth the ticket price on its own.
After the theatre-style intermission, John MacKenna – poet, novelist, playwright and friend of Cohen who adapted his words to create the requiem for theatre Between Your Love And Mine – recalls the man he knew and Cohen’s belief that Ireland was “a blessed place”, remarking on how even a late email from the man written “in the shadow of death retained his humour and humility” before reciting Cohen’s “penitential hymn” ‘Come Healing’. This runs into the guitar line that opens ‘Happens To The Heart’ from Cohen’s last masterpiece Thanks For The Dance. Mick Flannery battles gamely with the melody and Cohen’s way with it, and he hits it more times than he misses. If there had only been a couple of more verses, he would have won it over completely. The strings join the fray after the second chorus, there’s a delicate flute line, then brushed drums after another chorus and the harp follows the guitar. I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: show me another artist whose final work was every bit as good as his first? It is a spell-binding late flourish from a master.
Moncrieff, back on in a shirt that definitely passes the Daz blue whiteness test, drifts a bit close to Brian Kennedy territory the odd time during ‘So Long Marianne’ – although when he hits it, he really hits it - but he’s rescued by the French horn and organ behind the chorus. The song breaks down to just the organ and guitar before the chorus swells back up and the ridiculously talented men and women of the Concert Orchestra throw everything and the kitchen sink at the finale.
An abiding memory here, of Cohen and this song. Years ago, before time and drink ravaged my only ever modest looks, I met a woman at some social do who I'd had a crush on when I was a teenager. She was slightly older, very beautiful, and a million miles out of reach. But on this occasion the fates, and the cocktails, smiled in my direction, and we spoke and danced and kissed.
She took me back to her house, and poured more wine, and put on that Leonard Cohen record.
I told her tall tales of adventures real and imagined, anxious not to disturb the evening's momentum.
Later, as things progressed in their hoped-for fashion, I remember thinking, in a surprising moment of clarity, that not only am I listening to a Cohen song, I am in a Cohen song.
Thank you, Leonard.
Back in the room, Drew takes ‘Slow’ as the kind of blues that B.B. King and Bobby Bland used to knock out, with string and brass injections and a well-shaken tambourine. The string arrangement throughout ‘Anthem’ slightly recall Louis Armstrong’s ‘We Have All The Time In The World’ – there is no higher praise – and, as Savage joins Drew for “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in”, any heart with blood pumping through it breaks apart.
We now get Suzanne’s Savage big show stopper with 'Dance Me To The End Of Love'. She’s a natural born star, the leading vocal talent on show tonight, and as showbiz as Sammy Davis Junior doing a telethon. There is oboe, zills, a double-bass going to and fro, and gypsy violin from the brilliant Brona Cahill, but the song belongs to Savage as her voice, full of Eastern modulation, has you in a wartime dancehall one minute and beside a campfire the next. We’re back in poetry corner again with O’Toole and Flynn, who delivers ‘Kayne West Is Not Picasso’ – he most assuredly is not – with appropriate gusto, but it is the lilting approach to the “1, 2… 3, 1” of ‘Thanks For The Dance’ that brings a tear to the eye as a clarinet quartet join in with a bit of Mozart.
Hannigan is good value during ‘If It Be Your Will’ – flutes dance across the top of the strings, there’s a flamenco guitar solo, before Cahill runs away with it again. Despite my misgivings, and I’m well aware of how much she means to so many people, we can at least agree on one thing when Ms Hannigan says these are some of the finest songs ever written. ‘Hallelujah’ arrives with the inevitability of winter and when her voice really opens up and belts it out during the chorus, I can start to appreciate what others hear in her. The harp plucks at the note as the strings swirl around the backing singers, and the song that cannot be killed moves everyone in the room and possibly those waiting outside as well. The orchestra take their well-earned bows, they have been beyond superb throughout.
One last song as all the vocalists return to the stage. The C&W stylings of ‘Passing Through’ doesn’t suit them all – although Savage could sing the death notices out of the paper and still have you tapping a toe – but it’s a spirited finish. Banjos are tortured, the washboard is scraped and the horn section goes full Bonanza. The singers, and even conductor Gavin Maloney, receive justified garlands and roars of approval.
There’s magic in the music of Leonard Cohen, magic that was conjured up tonight with consummate skill by the incomparable talent of the RTÉ Concert Orchestra. With all due respect to the singers – and they all shone – the night belonged to the men and women in the sharp outfits at the back. The arrangements - kudos to Brian Connor, and to Elizabeth Laragy, who put the whole thing together - were both subtle and inventive, directing a torch towards Cohen’s melodic gifts, which are often overshadowed by the light of his poetical skill. We were lucky to be there. Thanks for this dance.