“Leonard Cohen has a pill for every illness,” said Josh Ritter shortly before Tuesday night’s tribute to the Canadian songwriter—titled “Sincerely L. Cohen”—at the Music Hall of Williamsburg. Less than three months after Cohen’s death, a group of more than a dozen songwriters and musicians gathered in Brooklyn for a loving, thoughtful tribute to Cohen’s life in music and poetry.
With a first-rate collection of local musicians led by Josh Kaufman, and including Walter Martin (keys), Annie Nero (bass) and Ray Rizzo (drums) serving as the house band, a parade of artists ranging from Elvis Perkins to Lee Ranaldo took the stage during the two-plus hour performance.
The backing band was modeled, roughly, after the extensive, impeccable touring outfit Cohen had gathered over the last decade of his career, right down to the three backup singers. Comprised of Cassandra Jenkins, Leslie Mendelson, and Jocie Adams, the trio added phenomenal depth and richness to many of the evening’s finest performances.
The show’s boldest decision came early, when Delicate Steve opened proceedings with an instrumental version of Cohen’s signature tune “Hallelujah,” a song with which fellow performer Lenny Kaye shares a deeply personal connection.
“When my daughter was in Junior High School, she did a dance routine to Jeff Buckley’s version of ‘Hallelujah’ the same year Jeff disappeared. That’s my favorite memory of her,” Kaye shared prior to the show, before reflecting on the legacy of Cohen’s art. “Leonard used his music and his words to plumb the depths of his soul and to try to find his place in the universe.”
After offering a moving reading of Cohen’s profane 1966 novel Beautiful Losers, a book Lou Reed had recommended to Kaye in the early 70’s, the legendary guitarist provided a mid-show highlight with his raucous rendition of 1977’s “Don’t Go Home With Your Hard-On,” a song Kaye describes as the most “brutally honest song Leonard ever wrote.”
Cohen, the lifelong poet, has always been appreciated for his lyricism, but Kaye’s performance, with its ecstatic Bo Diddley beat, highlighted one of the most noteworthy running themes of last night’s tribute: the primacy of Leonard Cohen’s sheer musicality. Cohen’s complex sense of melody and rhythm was evident in the disparate range of styles on display, from the robotic funk of Steve Salett’s “First We Take Manhattan,” to the reggae-folk of Osei Essed’s “Diamonds in the Mine,” to the rootsy country of Teddy Thompson’s “Tower of Song,” to the deep soul of Amy Helm’s “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye.”
Helm based her rendition on Roberta Flack’s 1969 version of the song. “Digging into this tune I realized, wow, it’s a very simple but very difficult melody. It’s very tricky to sing,” Helm said the day before the concert.
During the second half of the twenty-song show, however, a more familiar model of solo-acoustic showmanship provided the biggest highlights. Josh Ritter’s “Chelsea Hotel #2” was the evening’s most impassioned performance, while Richard Thompson, the only performer on the bill who could claim to be a bona fide folk contemporary of Cohen’s, offered note-perfect performances of “Bird on the Wire” and “Story of Isaac,” two songs from Cohen’s 1969 masterpiece Songs From a Room.
“Leonard is a great lyricist,” Thompson told The Voice. “He keeps it simple and direct, but uses the poet’s full palette of language. At a time when the pop and folk lyric were beginning to express a lot more, this was pioneering.”
With their laundry lists of rapidly rotating performers, tribute shows can fall victim to a lack of a unifying theme, but Tuesday night’s show was a carefully constructed, expertly structured production, complete with tasteful snippets of poignant Cohen interviews interspersed throughout.
“What is the proper behavior in a catastrophe?” Cohen asked over the P.A. during one such moment, in an interview from 1992. “You say, I’m conservative? I’m liberal? I’m pro-abortion? I’m against it? It seems to be completely inappropriate to the gravity of the situation.” Immediately following the interview, Adam Weiner launched into an irreverent rendition of the prescient apocalyptic tale “Everybody Knows.”
“Everybody knows that the boat is leaking,” he sang. “Everybody knows that the captain lied.”
That Cohen’s music has never felt more timely, or more necessary, was not lost on many of the night’s performers. “What I will forever have from Leonard is a comrade in the loving, peaceful resistance,” explained Holly Miranda, who performed “I’m Your Man,” before Sincerely L. Cohen, which also served as a benefit for the Preemptive Love Coalition, an organization that aids Syrian and Iraqi refugees. “He’s taught me to be vigilantly thoughtful and ferociously kind. To let the light shine through the cracks. To care more, and forgive more.”
“Leonard’s taught me that a perfect mixture of cynicism and optimism is at the heart of great things,” Ritter added. Cohen’s sense of bitter optimism was on full display during the joyful encore ensemble performance of “So Long Marianne,” complete with a full crowd sing-along led by Will Sheff.
Speaking for every single performer and fan in attendance, Sheff ended the special evening with a simple display of gratitude: “Thanks for the songs, Mr. Cohen.”