Photo Credit: Bob Barkany
(Purcell Room, Tuesday 19 November. Review by Chris Parker)
Although many singer-songwriters have good reason to be apprehensive about contemporary reinterpretations of their work, Leonard Cohen, whose songs formed the entire set (barring the encore) of Christine Tobin’s South Bank EFG LJF performance, is famously accommodating in this regard, even enshrining his willingness to ‘hand on his torch’ to Jennifer Warnes by contributing a drawing of a hand holding one (captioned ‘Jenny Sings Lenny’) to the American singer’s 1987 hit album Famous Blue Raincoat. Her Cohen-covers album, indeed, arguably helped him relaunch his career by injecting a touch of tasteful FM-radio-friendly rock into his songs; Tobin’s treatments come at the songs from a different, more jazz-inflected angle, but like Warnes’s reworkings, they are simultaneously provocative and illuminating.
Sensitively framed by accordion (played by one of her earliest collaborators, Huw Warren), acoustic bass (Dave Whitford), electric guitar (Phil Robson) and percussion (Adriano Adewale), Tobin began with the aforementioned ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’, a song dealing with a somewhat complicated love triangle, usually infused with the deep melancholy that results from the careful suppression of pain, but in this livelier version replacing mournful languorous acceptance with an almost defiant emotional bravery. Cohen being the subtle, deeply sensitive poet he is, his songs are peculiarly susceptible to such thoughtful treatments, and so even relatively straightforward arrangements of songs such as ‘Dance Me to the End of Love’, ‘A Thousand Kisses Deep’ and – the celebrated template for Cohen’s ‘mature acceptance of inevitable emotional change’ songs – ‘Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye’ cast their sentiments in fresh light, Tobin’s searingly affecting vocals emphasising their every slightest nuance.
Cohen, in addition to being one of the most intrepid living reporters from love’s front lines, is also a keen, pithily sardonic but humanely sensitive observer of the contemporary scene, both musical and political, and so Tobin’s suitably robust visits to ‘The Tower of Song’, ‘Everybody Knows’ and ‘The Story of Isaac’, the last an appropriately sourly reharmonised cry for a reflective pause from knee-jerk militarism, skilfully fleshed out her portrait of the great Canadian, so that by the time the set’s final song, Cohen’s first utterance on record, ‘Susanne’, came round, Tobin could be forgiven for (surprisingly) pepping it up in affectionately celebratory manner and giving her excellent, hair-trigger sensitive band a showcase for their considerable musicianship.
Arguably the highlight of the set, mind you, was one of Cohen’s less celebrated songs performed solely with Warren’s piano: ‘Anthem’ is perhaps unduly neglected because it jostles with a series of more immediately striking songs (‘The Future’, ‘Closing Time’ etc.) in its original setting, but in Tobin’s beautifully burnished treatment it positively glowed.
The spring 2014 release of A Thousand Kisses Deep, Tobin’s forthcoming album of all this Cohen material, is, on the evidence of this wholly absorbing, often downright ravishing concert, something to be keenly anticipated.