As a Canadian Jewish person, there is no higher honour than reading a Leonard Cohen poem in the middle of a hockey arena –Seth Rogan
A Bell Centre’s worth of the faithful gathered on the first anniversary of Leonard Cohen’s death to mourn his passing and celebrate his legacy at the Tower of Song, a memorial concert held by the beloved singer-songwriter’s family. The evening was almost note perfect, no easy task considering the time constraints and the number and consequence of the artists. It was richly moving and satisfying, a fitting tribute to an elegant and insightful man. It was not maudlin. In the words of Cohen’s son Adam, who is credited with organizing the evening: “Our goal was, as in many religions, to sing songs of praise to those who are no longer with us.”
Sting started the brisk climb up the Tower of Cohen with Dance Me to the End of Love, wearing a reasonable facsimile of Cohen’s trademark tailored suits and sardonic smirk. He would return later in the night to bring us the comfort of the Sisters of Mercy and to ring Anthem’s bell.
We were braced for a long night of technical difficulties and tearful eulogies, but instead artists were whiplashed on and off stage in seconds, and only the Prime Minister was allowed to ramble. This dispatch may be because this is not producer Hal Willner’s first crack of the whip at a tribute show.
The orchestra had assuredly put in their ten-thousand hours, and was an all-star cast in its own right: Marc Ribot on guitar; the Webb Sisters, who have a singing career of their own but toured as backup vocalists with Cohen; the astonishing lute player Javier Mas; and Cohen’s long-time collaborator and back-up vocalist Sharon Robinson (who performed a rousing version of I’m Your Man in a fedora.) Some artists, such as Feist, had her own backup singers for her reprise of her haunting Juno tribute: Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye, while others used the existing musicians. You have to wonder how that was negotiated.
The Cohen family chose the songs, then set about the herculean task of organizing the artists they wanted to hear sing them. In many cases the choice was inspired, and the artists brought new meaning or colour to their arrangements and interpretations, making the song their own. None more than Patrick Watson, whose version of Who By Fire was eerily orchestrated and brought chills to the audience. The Lumineers’ rugged Americana style turned Democracy from a march into an anthem. Others, such as Ron Sexsmith, simply did yeoman versions of such classics as Suzanne.
The Trudeau/Grégoires were delightful, their blend of self-deprecation and honesty giving the Obamas some competition for patenting charm. Cohen’s Hallellujah was sung at their wedding, and their first dance was to I’m Your Man. The couple riffed the lyrics merrily, Trudeau’s line, “If you want a boxer, I will step into the ring for you” getting a chuckle because he once competed in a charity boxing match.
Another high point in the show began with Damien Rice’s Famous Blue Raincoat, which grew to a nadir of yowling sadness, and earned him an instant ovation. This was followed by Cohen’s son Adam, a musician in his own right. At first glance, he seems to look nothing like his father. But the further he got into Marianne, the more he sounded and looked like his progenitor. As he finished the song reciting the letter his father had written to the real Marianne shortly before her death, the resemblance was eerie. Cue ovation #2.
Then k d lang blasted onto stage like the cheeky offspring of Liberace, Elvis and an Alberta farmer, with better vocal chops than all three put together. Given the number of competitors to inherit the mantle of Hallelujah, this most-covered of songs, lang had to own it, and she did. Her Hallelujah was exultant and majestic enough to bring the audience not only out of their seats, but raise them up into the ether on the strength of her powerful pipes.
Among its many interpreters, Hallelujah’s other presumed heir is Rufus Wainwright. Given that Wainwright has a child with Cohen’s daughter Lorca, it is surprising he wasn’t chosen to cover the classic. It could be as simple as scheduling conflicts, or as complicated as family politics.
Elvis Costello was honored with Cohen’s The Future and Bird on a Wire. Though his raucous version of Future was good, the songs seemed to own him rather than the reverse. And who would want to go up against Aaron Neville for any song, never mind Bird?
Adam Cohen rounded out the evening with duets with Lana Del Rey (Chelsea Hotel) and an encore version of Coming Back to You with Basia Bulat. Westmount’s Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue Choir sang the finale with a Cohen recording for You Want It Darker.
As song followed glorious song, you started to wonder just how one human could have produced so much beauty and resonance. And though a cynical view might see Cohen’s restless personal life as a clichéd attempt to court pain and experience to please his dark muse, in Cohen’s own words, he saw his music as a triumph over difficulty, not the result of it. Those contrasts, the sublime and the debased, beauty and all-to-human failings, enlightenment and depression, light and dark, seem to be what makes his music great. Or as he put it: You want it darker, but the cracks are where the light gets in.