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Pic by Trent O'Donnell

Covid-19 took John Prine, who I never had the fortune to see, and Hal Wilner, whose work I did have the opportunity to see, last week. It’s a bastard of a thing.

As part of the effort to make up for something else covid-19 has taken – a chance to see live music – Wind Back Wednesday’s series of live concert reviews from days of yore lands on a night in 2005 created by Wilner.

While some of his collaborative efforts were more on the miss than the hit side (the Sydney Opera House forecourt Rogues Gallery night is a wet body/sore backside/frustrating three hours I still try to blank out), the Leonard Cohen tribute show is one I won’t ever forget.

Not just for its songs or its almost all stunning performances, but for its introduction to artists known but not previously seen, or not known at all. An amazing night then and now.



Sydney Opera House, January 28

Sydney Festival

In Leonard Cohen’s 1973 song A Singer Must Die, presenting himself before a panel of stern judges, he declares: “I'm sorry for smudging the air with my song”.

Some smudge. Some song.

That smudge’s lasting imprint on several generations of singers and fellow songwriters is the subtext of what reductively would be called a tribute show but in effect was a celebration of The Song. Spread across nearly four hours it was as strong on interpretation as it was light on unnecessary reverence; as steeped in Jacques Brel and country music as German cabaret and folk; as joyous as it was moving.

You could see that with a cocked-hip Jarvis Cocker wholly inhabiting Death Of A Ladies Man (in duet with Beth Orton) and bringing a self-mocking playboy touch to I Can’t Forget. And certainly it was there in Nick Cave who made us re-evaluate one of Cohen’s more contentious songs, Diamonds In The Mine - “a nasty Leonard Cohen song” he cheerfully declared – by playing up some Vegas sleaze while the always impressive and flexible backing group briefly turned into Elvis Presley’s TCB band.

Not that the evening’s stars were only the best-known faces. The Handsome Family took and gave great delight by relocating A Heart With No Companion in the Kentucky hills, while Teddy Thompson (whose mother Linda Thompson earlier had hushed the room with The Story Of Isaac) found a bruised centre to lines such as “I choose the rooms that I live in with care/the windows are small and the walls almost bare”.

And in the category of “where the hell has he been hiding?” was the hulking, shambling figure of New York singer Antony who left open mouths on and off stage with his heart-piercing explorations of The Guests and the prayer-like If It Be Your Will. (He’s playing tonight at the Vanguard and must be seen.)

Actually what was staggering was how each time you thought the night had just had its peak moment someone else would stroll on stage and give you another one. And then another.

For example Rufus Wainwright’s version of Hallelujah, which escaped from the shadow of Jeff Buckley’s seemingly definitive interpretation with an elegant but effortlessly transporting take, is the kind of song which would climax any regular show but here early in the first set.

Three songs later Cohen’s former backing vocalist Julie Christensen beautifully balanced The Singer Must Die between pathos and humour, and upped the ante again.

Martha Wainwright’s bared-to-the-bone Tower Of Song was matched by her appearance with her mother and aunt, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, on a spare but riveting You Know Who I Am, where their voices were like three levels of the one voice.

But soon after that came Perla Batalla, the other of Cohen’s long-term backing vocalists who were a strong presence behind many performances on the night, delivering a rich, passionate exploration of Bird On A Wire.

It was a wondrous night. A long, winding, rich and constantly rewarding night brought to us by the musical equivalent of a fantasy football team whose dedication was to the work not the ego.

Somewhere in California you imagine the droll Mr Cohen hearing this and saying to them, “I thank you. I thank you for doing your duty/you keepers of truth, you guardians of beauty”.


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