Derek Spencer couldn’t help but comment on the “rowdiness” of the capacity crowd before him at the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd for Saturday night’s Leonard Cohen tribute concert titled “The Gift of a Golden Voice.” The joke, of course, is that the audience had greeted the Beattyville native – and all of the baker’s dozen of acts gathered for the event — with attentive quiet. Cohen’s music demanded nothing less.
A joint endeavor between First Presbyterian Church’s Music for Mission series and the ongoing lineup of Soulful Space concerts presented at Good Shepherd, the program was a rich and stylistically far reaching overview of the songs and poetry of the Canadian songsmith who died a year ago this week.
Is a church — any church — a proper setting for Cohen’s songs? Judging at least by the music chosen for this program, one would have to answer in the affirmative. Some of his works chosen were overtly religious, like the title tune to his final album, “You Want it Darker” — a requiem of sorts performed with meditative unrest by Doc Feldman, but countered by stunning high-end harmonies of Hebrew verse (and a chorus translated from Hebrew) by Art Shechet. Others, like “The Land of Plenty,” also from “You Want It Darker” and performed with stately assurance by Marilyn Robie and the chamber-folk flavored ensemble Nevi’im, cast religious imagery in less obtainable and more topically sobering terms (“For the millions in a prison that wealth has set apart, for the Christ who has not risen from the caverns of the heart”).
Mostly, though, “The Gift of a Golden Voice” charmed in simpler ways — namely, in how the program showcased how wildly adaptable Cohen music can be. Last night there was a chilled, solo electric version of the classic “Suzanne” from Colin Fleming, a striking “Amen” from Four Leonards (and a Fifth) that grew from Cowboy Junkies-like cool to a roaring blues manifesto and a very intriguing take on “Anthem” by JoAnna James that unlocked the deceptively hushed tone of her singing with a playful string arrangement that eventually relaxed so one of Cohen’s most radiant lyrics could be placed front and center (“There is a crack in everything — that’s how the light gets in”).
The only times the program was thrown off balance was when an artist devised an arrangement or delivery that placed their voice above Cohen’s. The Paper Moon Jazz Trio conjured a lively sense of blues based swing that, while technically impressive, proved an ill fit for the uneasy grace inherent to “Bird on a Wire.” But on “Everybody Knows,” the group’s sense of sleek sass floated along quite naturally with the song’s whimsical doomsday vision (“Everybody knows that the dice are loaded, everybody rolls with their fingers crossed; everybody knows the war is over, everybody knows the good guys lost”).
The evening concluded with a collaborative version of “Hallelujah” — a proclamation not just of faith, but of humanity and lost souls. Hearing the audience sing the tune’s single word title chorus in such a serene setting was undeniably moving. There must have been a crack somewhere in the Good Shepherd walls as the song played out because an ample supply of light found it way in from the cold November night.