Concert review: Keith James sings the songs of Leonard Cohen

Review by Ben Macnair

There are some singers with a song or a sound that encapsulates a summer, or a year, who trade on that one sound, with little development or evolution. Then there are songwriters who through careful nurturing of words, of music, of sound and style build up a body of work. Leonard Cohen was one of those writers, and the guitarist and singer Keith James did those words and songs justice when he performed for an attentive audience at the Guildhall.

Known as much for the deep sonority of his voice, and his acerbic sense of humour, Leonard Cohen also led an interesting life, a family man who spent a decade as a Monk, a happily retired musician who had to hit the road again in his 70’s, to vast critical and musical acclaim when his manager had taken more than six million dollars from him, his life story would have been interesting enough without the quality of his song-writing, novels and poetry.

Having seen Keith James previous shows featuring songs by the the likes of Nick Drake, I knew that the songs were in safe hands, but stripping a song back to its basics, of just one guitar and vocal is a tight-rope walk for any performer. A band can hide behind musical dynamics and development, or the gang mentality that being in a group can bring, but a solo performer doesn’t have that safety net.

Leonard Cohen, like Bob Dylan is one of the covered of singer songwriters. Many other performers have had hits with radically reworked readings of his songs, the most notable being Jeff Buckley’s octave skipping reading of Hallejulah. Cohen’s songs tell of the human condition, of love, loss and what it means to be human, and still have a deep resonance decades after the songs first soundtracked yearning young love, or of hard lessons learnt.

The first half of the concert looked at the more obscure of Cohen’s songs, with Keith James’s virtuoso guitar playing, sonorous vocals, and story-telling style filling the Guildhall, with such songs as the bossa nova rhythms of Dance Me To The End Of Love, or A Thousand Kisses Deep.

The second half of the concert featured the songs and stories that made Cohen’s name and fortune, so we had a solid run of such songs as My Sacred Love, Take This Waltz, the deep meditations of Sisters of Mercy and Suzanne, whilst First We Take Manhattan linked a rock rhythm part to resigned vocals. Bird on A Wire, and So Long Marianne closed the set, before the not unexpected sing along version of Hallelujah.

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