Came So Far For Beauty – Dublin – Review

Came So Far For Beauty –

reviewed by Stuart Hardy

Is it really three weeks since I was in Dublin, enjoying breakfast after the first night of the Came So Far For Beauty tribute to Leonard Cohen (orchestrated by Hal Willner (long time collaborator and producer of Gavin Friday’s albums ‘Each Man Kills the Thing He Loves’, ‘Adam ‘n’ Even’) and performed at The Point Depot as part of the 2006 Dublin Theatre Festival)? It feels like yesterday. It was an amazing show, with such a wealth and diversity of talent. It’s taken a while to digest. I’ve thought about it daily, been investigating work by the contributing artists who I didn’t previously know and re-acquainting myself with stuff by those who are more familiar.

There’s a slogan for the current Eurostar UK-based ad campaign that I quite like: “You carry your journey with you.” That’s very snappy and potentially trite, but in this particular case it’s been very true. I’ve certainly been carrying, and sustained by, this particular trip since I returned home. Before embarking, I had started to become worried by the potential cost. Was this really a good use of my funds right now? In retrospect I have to say yes. I’d spend it all again, even twice as much. These memories will last for years.

Let’s remind ourselves of that artist roster again, shall we? The vocalists were Anjani, Antony (Hegarty), Laurie Anderson, Perla Batalla, Nick Cave, Julie Christensen, Jarvis Cocker, Gavin Friday, The Handsome Family, Robin Holcomb, Mary Margaret O’Hara, Beth Orton, Lou Reed & Teddy Thompson and the musicians comprised Steven Bernstein, Rob Burger, Charlie Burnham, David Coulter, Don Falzone, Briggan Krauss, Maxim Moston, Chris Spedding, Kate St John & Kenny Wollesen. The musicians were mostly new to me, but eleven of the vocal acts I already knew and a further two have since engaged my interest.

Hal Willner’s address book must be insured for a very large sum of money indeed. The last time I saw anything comparable was his Harry Smith Project show in London in 1999, in which several of the artists above also participated. I’ve been raving about that performance for the last seven years and I suspect that I’m going to be doing the same with this one too. Sorry if I’m repeating myself, but it’s astonishing to be able to sit down for four hours and watch such a marvellously talented selection of artists do their thing, all in the same place, in shifting collaborations with each other. Then to see it again the next night, too.

So, how did everyone perform? Nick Cave’s renditions of Avalanche, Dress Rehearsal Rag and Suzanne had an imposing, if slightly well-mannered quality. I especially liked his take on Suzanne, which was quite jaunty compared to the original. I never find him a particularly inspiring performer, maybe I should see him doing some of his own repertoire for a change. Robyn Holcomb left me rather cold, as did Anjani. There was nothing particularly wrong with their performances (well, OK, Anjani’s Blue Alert was rather lifeless), but nothing about them fired me up either.

Lou Reed was great. I’ve enjoyed his stuff over the years while never being a particularly keen fan, but his interpretations of One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong, The Stranger Song and Joan Of Arc (with Julie Christiansen) were magnificent. I’ve been playing quite a bit of Lou Reed stuff in the subsequent weeks. The Handsome Family were unknown to me before this show, but I’ve been checking them out too. The guy’s voice “out-Caved Nick,” as someone close to me in the audience remarked. The woman has a neat line in deadpan humour too. They did A Thousand Kisses Deep and a heart-stoppingly beautiful Famous Blue Raincoat.

Antony Hegarty performed a lovely version of The Guests, backed Gavin Friday on a solid version of Who By Fire and then returned later in the show to nail the audience members into their seats with the enormous crescendo of If It Be Your Will, which was like a Stax soul classic on Mogadon. He also sang with Laurie Anderson on My Secret Life, immediately after Anderson’s solo and very funny Dear Heather, performed with a treated voice that made her sound more than a little like Leonard himself. Antony & Laurie also got together later in the show to do You Know Who I Am.

As well as covering Who By Fire (which he used to incorporate into his own live performances several years ago), Gavin Friday took the bull by the horns and together with the divine Mary Margaret O’Hara tackled the behemoth that is Hallelujah. Choosing wisely to avoid a reverential approach in the vein of Buckley, Cale or Wainwright, Friday’s whispered croon marched the song up against a wall and then O’Hara’s Tourette-like keening, whooping and screeching machine-gunned it to death. I thought it was a fantastic approach: a deconstruction of the song that was written about the difficulty of song-writing. Many members of the audience begged to differ, however.

Friday also covered Everybody Knows, which he dedicated cheekily to Bertie Aherne, who was going through a rather slippery political patch at the time related to something financial, the details of which have now completely escaped me. I do remember reading the coverage in the paper, which explained that Mr Aherne recognised that he had made an error but didn’t think he had done anything wrong. A masterpiece of doublespeak. Gavin’s funky, elusive performance of the song brought out its burlesque elements and parallelled the ducking and diving of the name-checked Taoiseach.

Mary Margaret O’Hara returned immediately after the intermission for a loose, jazzy version of Because Of and a more straightforwardly country-tinged rendition of The Window. On the first night, her breathtaking performance of the latter song was an eye-opener for many members of the audience who didn’t appear to know her and assumed that she could only do the unstructured scat thing. On the second night unfortunately she seemed to suffer from a bad attack of nerves and restarted the song two or three times, all the while keeping up a low, murmured babble of “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” Needless to say, her flaws are still better than many others’ perfection.

Beth Orton supplied a powerful interpretation of So Long Marianne and a throaty Sisters Of Mercy. I lost touch with her work several years ago, but I’m certainly making an effort to re-acquaint myself now. Teddy Thompson got together with sister Kamila for a gentle reggae version of Tonight Will Be Fine (enjoyable, but it didn’t really seem to showcase his tremendous talent), but returned towards the end of the show to skewer The Future, in which he all but shed his mild-mannered persona. As he shivered and hollered his way through the “Repent! Repent!” chorus, I found myself thinking that if he were truly to lose control he might spontaneously combust.

The two backing singers were a constant throughout most of the performances. In fact, Perla Batella and Julie Christiansen were Cohen’s own backing singers from the late 1980s onwards. They had several opportunities to demonstrate that they are powerful performers in their own right. Batella’s Bird On A Wire was more gospel and soulful than Cohen’s original. On the first night I found it a little slow and laboured, but on the second night I relaxed into it and enjoyed it much more. As well as Christiansen’s electrifying duet with Lou Reed – her voice was possibly the only one on stage that could compete with Reed’s squalling shards of guitar – she duetted with Batella on an equally forceful song called Anthem, which was new to me.

Most of the performances made me hear the songs with completely fresh ears and I realised just how much I tend to focus on Cohen’s rumbling drone of a voice rather than the lyrics. The versatility of the songs was clear, with many sounding like they were the performers’ own. None more so than Jarvis Cocker’s choice selections of Death Of A Ladies Man (with Beth Orton), I Can’t Forget and Chelsea Hotel No. 2. He also took the lead in the all-cast finale of Memories. As with his own material, the mixture of comedy and menace in Cohen’s songs gave him something to get his teeth into. He also gave one of the more physical performances of the night, roaming around the stage as though it was his own. He definitely gave the impression of being the unspoken Master Of Ceremonies.

All in all, this was a night to remember. What I hadn’t realised until I returned home, is that the soundtrack to the I’m Your Man film (based on Cohen’s life and works) contains recordings of earlier performances of Came So Far For Beauty in Brighton and Sydney. Some of the performers are slightly different – Rufus Wainwright instead of Gavin, to name but one example – but overall the CD serves as a very satisfying reminder of the show as performed in Dublin. If you were there and you don’t have the CD, you really need to treat yourself. If you didn’t manage to attend this show, I suggest that you join me in a collective prayer for it to be re-staged in London, Amsterdam, Paris or Berlin. I’ll be first in the queue for tickets.