On the attic level of the Old Firehouse, something seminal is happening. It’s a cold Tuesday evening in December. The chilly night air exacerbates the warm glow inside; a haze synonymous with this bohemian hotspot cum Babylon of pizza. Reading this, you’re no doubt familiar with the setting – perhaps you’ve even been to an ExTunes Sunday evening showcase. This is a very different affair, however. The tables and chairs in the attic have been cleared away to clear a sort of anti-dance-floor; a small sound-system has been erected in the far corner, and is tended by a frizzy-haired mixing wizard, sipping tea; the music of Leonard Cohen plays over the PA.
In the month since Cohen’s death, aged 82, I’ve become very suddenly attached to his work. Before he died, I, like most people, knew him almost exclusively as the original author of Hallelujah, a song covered by literally everyone, from Jeff Buckley to (shuddering) Alexandra Burke. The last few, academically silent weeks have served as a choice opportunity to rectify this – indeed, Take This Waltz is probably now the quintessential song of my Christmas 2016. I have then, this evening’s organiser to thank for the pretty archaeology that now consumes my evenings. When Tristan Gatward asked me if I’d contribute some Cohen covers to a tribute gig at Firehouse on December 13, he was (rightly) shocked that I, with my somewhat deep-throated cynicism, was so aloof. “I’m sorry,” I said; “I don’t really know anything by Leonard Cohen.”
Well, now I do. And, looking round, so does everyone else. There’s something very sombre in the air at Firehouse tonight; but there’s excitement too. From the start, it feels like something you’d have kicked yourself to miss. The room is slowly filling with musicians and well wishers alike; everyone’s shaking hands, talking, buying one another drinks – it’s the sweetest gig I’ve ever been at.
At 8 pm, Tristan takes to the stand to introduce the night on behalf of Poltimore Festival, and begins proceedings with some readings of Cohen’s early poetry. Two cancerous lips and a damning assessment of the natural world later, Jules Reason appears. His four-song marathon includes a fantastically brave reggae version of First We Take Manhattan, a saccharin Famous Blue Raincoat and, of course, the first Hallelujah of the night. “It’s just so iconic”, Jules admits before he plays – a needless admission of guilt; his warm rendition, abridged and, in places forgotten, is perfect: a tribute as much to the art of the cover version as it is the song so synonymous with that format.
He’s followed by duo, the Corduroy Curiosities. Comprising acoustic guitar and vocals, the pair’s fun stage presence perfectly suits the experimental Cohen numbers they opt for. With neat, contextual introductions provided before each track, Ishbel Crombie and Phil Andrews wander first, through the sleazy Chelsea Hotel #2, next, the gravelly I’m Your Man, and, finally, the haunting Dance Me to the End of Love, a music-hall meander whose sad, Yiddish hum tragically befits its holocaust inspiration, even in this humble restaurant cover.
Afterward comes the angelic warble of Sadie Horler, whose lofty and dreamlike take on Hey That’s No Way to Say Goodbye, soars. Each of the covers here is imbued with a strange, transatlantic flavour as she vacillates between Cohen’s thick Candian drawl and her own, feather-light English birdsong; the resulting combination is beautiful and very original. As well a gorgeous voice, Sadie also possesses a stunning guitar, engraved with birds and flowers. All in all then, she’s about the folksiest thing you’ve ever seen. Complete with a mandolin-wielding friend who accompanies her on soft closer, Joan of Arc, she’s a bonafide Cohen-covering package.
The evening goes on in a similar vein, with further acoustic sets from Elliot Hollingsworth, Chris Rudd and Tobias Ben Jacob (and, in addition, an electric set with analogue synthesiser cassette backing, contributed by yours truly). Jacob’s renditions are of particular note – he has seemingly the whole Firehouse singing along to So Long, Marianne, playing and swaying with a wit and charm not dissimilar to the stage antics of Father John Misty. After providing a fascinating anecdote on Cohen’s signature flamenco chop (which he also executes expertly), he then launches into a cover of Bird on a Wire, whose lyrics he sings from a napkin draped over the monitor (his miniscule scrawl, he informs us, is particularly easy to read in the dark). The whole evening is characterised by this kind of dry humour; it belonged very much to Cohen and lives in the spirit of his songs – they in turn feel as though they’ll live forever in tonight.
I like to think Leonard Cohen saw or heard some of what happened this evening. It was a beautiful thing to behold, and particularly special to be a part of – as both audience and performer. Nights like this don’t come along every week, but when they do, they make for very special occasions. Tristan and Poltimore did a fantastic job staging the event (free of charge, no less) and the atmosphere was really very lovely. I might be new to Cohen’s music, but I know a damn good show when I see one and…well…this was a damn good show.
With that then, a very good night to you, Leonard Cohen – and thank-you for the memories.