No-one can accuse Keith James of opportunism. He has been touring The Songs Of Leonard Cohen for six years now. The set has changed sometimes and one iteration even included a documentary film but this was the show’s 305th performance. In the immediate aftermath of Cohen’s death one quote emerged above all others: “There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in” from ‘Anthem’.
Keith opened his set with ‘Anthem’ and followed it with one of Cohen’s most cynical songs, ‘Everybody Knows’, one of many masterpieces from I’m A Man. The first set was particularly sombre, inevitably I suppose given that Cohen’s death is still an open wound for some. ‘If It Be Your Will’, ‘A Thousand Kisses Deep’ and ‘It Seemed A Better Way’ from the final album set the tone. Keith skilfully segued into a piece from Cohen’s greatest inspiration, Federico Garcia Lorca, which also gave him the opportunity to stretch out on the guitar. Hearing it in this context you can believe that Cohen could have written ‘The Mask’ and Keith repeated the trick in the second set by following ‘Take This Waltz’ with ‘Going To Santiago’.
While not sounding like Cohen vocally and doing more on the guitar than Cohen did what is most interesting is Keith’s reading of Cohen’s middle period middle when he was using big backings. The early songs such as ‘Suzanne’, ‘Bird On A Wire’ and ‘Sisters Of Mercy’ are too well-known and “simple” to lend themselves to over-interpretation and fans need something to sing along with as Keith proved by asking us to join in raucously with the chorus of ‘So Long, Marianne’: an experience to be cherished. Keith brings a song from that middle period like ‘First We Take Manhattan’, a song of political angst, back to basics.
Having closed with ‘Chelsea Hotel #2’ – I was surprised to find that I remembered nearly all the words – Keith encored with ‘Hallelujah’. It always amuses me that Cohen’s original studio recording of the song was actually rather flat and dull and it has been cover versions over the years that have made it what it is.
This was the first date of this leg of Keith’s ongoing Songs Of Leonard Cohen tour and there are many more opportunities to enjoy the show. I left with the feeling that I really ought to get back to the original albums particularly I’m Your Man, Various Positions and The Future. Sometimes you need, not only new ears, but also a different voice to bring a song back.
Artist’s website: www.keith-james.com