Canadian Leonard Cohen started his creative output as a poet in the 1950s, has written books and has achieved particular fame and longevity as a singer and songwriter.
This is the kind of vague description I could write for many artists displaced by time to the outer limits of pop culture if I don’t have much of a personal connection with their work. Having awareness of a few Cohen songs and a hint of his mystique, I was very enthused by the prospect My Leonard Cohen, featuring Stewart D’Arrietta and a nine-piece band performing a selection of Cohen songs. D’Arrietta makes noticeable changes to Cohen’s arrangements, which he admitted incensed one man from a past audience. However, if you’re not opposed to performers tinkering with a characteristic style, My Leonard Cohen stands up as a concert where D’Arrietta’s gravelly vocals feature in some irrepressible flashes.
My Leonard Cohen’s first success was in prompting me to finally have a few runs through a whole Cohen album in advance. I was expecting further illumination by hearing about what Cohen’s works meant to D’Arrietta. In this regard the audience were offered a few offhand comments, for example, to introduce a song that D’Arrietta listened to extensively after a break-up. Given the show’s title, this superficiality is a bit odd. The experience for an audience – particularly those who’ve come only recently to Cohen – would have been enriched by the performer’s personal reflections on the songs.
The sound quality on opening night caused some disappointment, mostly in the first half of the performance. My CD listens were enough to show that Cohen made his lyrics front and centre in recordings and performances, often employing sparse arrangements. Having these lyrics struggle through a swampy mix was unfortunate. From a stylistic viewpoint, D’Arrietta’s denser arrangements meant that the contemplative mood of some tracks was denied the space to have an impact. It might be that D’Arrietta’s voice – a solid growl comparable to that of Tom Waits (another of his tribute acts) – lacks some of Cohen’s shading and suits some of the selections and arrangements better than others. In some songs, such as the up-tempo “Everybody Knows”, everything comes together brilliantly and D’Arrietta is a live-wire on keys driving through a litany of disaffections; picture Jimmy Durante in rock mode poised between indignation and resignation. Further positives of the performance were that D’Arrietta’s arrangements were delivered sharply by the band and his vocals were suitably supported and balanced by backing singer Sunny Amoreena.
Personal taste doesn’t diminish the value of My Leonard Cohen as a way past the “Hallelujah” covers to meet your Leonard Cohen.