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Songs of Love and Hate (but mostly love)

Fort Wayne musicians pay tribute to Leonard Cohen

By Jim Fester

Fort Wayne Reader


Last year, when Gary Doan started organizing a bill of Fort Wayne musicians to participate in the All Star Tribute to Leonard Cohen, he says that some of the performers worried that the folks on stage might out number the people in the audience.

“I heard ‘yeah, great, I’d love to. But do you think people in Fort Wayne know Leonard Cohen?’” recalls Doan, the director of Fort Wayne Culutral Affairs. “I said ‘people in Fort Wayne listen to a lot more stuff than you think they do’.”

Doan was right. Not only was the event — which marked Cohen’s 75th birthday — well-attended, but Doan immediately started getting suggestions about what to do for 2010.

Initially, Doan wasn’t too keen about doing it again; he feared repetition would turn it stale. But he got a lot of good feedback, and more to the point, after talking to some of the performers, Doan felt there was there was “unfinished business” from last time. “There were a lot of artists I approached last year who didn’t get the chance to do it, and really wanted to,” he says. “And some of last year’s performers wanted to tackle a different song.”

The 2010 tribute takes place on Sunday, October 3rd at Calhoun Street Soup, Salads, & Spirits. So far, the line-up includes Lee Miles; Megan King; Joe Martyn Ricke; The Afrodisiacs; The Mimi Burns Band; The Joel Gragg Trio; Jeff McDonald; The Tear Jerks w/Richard Reprogle and Kenny Taylor; with more TBA.

Cohen’s musical career goes back to the late 60s (he’s also a fiction writer and poet), and though he’s never really had a massive hit, he’s built up a devoted audience and a reputation as a songwriter’s songwriter, garnering the admiration of countless musicians. “He’s quite a songwriter,” says Mimi Burns, one of the performers at the event. “Very passionate. It reminds me of spirituality: you can ask a hundred people what they think the song is about, and you’ll get a hundred different answers.”

“He’s from the generation of spoken word, and I think that transcends in his music,” Burns adds.

Like we said, his albums have never sold loads of copies, but some of his tunes — or at least covers of them — pop up in movie soundtracks and other unlikely places. His song “Hallelujah,” originally released in 1984, has had a particularly eventful life; John Cale, Jeff Buckley, Rufus Wainwright, and k.d. lang, have all covered it, it showed up on a West Wing episode, and just a couple years ago had another resurgence when it was performed by a contestant on American Idol.

With such a wealth of songs to choose from, performers had no problem finding a couple of Cohen’s songs to tackle, and Doan says he was somewhat surprised that there was no haggling or song swapping. “There wasn‘t as much of that as I thought there might be,” Doan laughs. “I think there’s two reasons for that, and the first is because Cohen has such a huge body of work.”

The second reason is a little more artistic. “All the performers on the bill are songwriters in their own right,” Doan says. “I’m sure that they’ve sort of latched on to certain songs, or felt an affinity for certain songs for whatever personal or musical reasons.”

And that really does seem to be the case. Lee Miles is performing “Who By Fire” and “Chelsea Hotel.” “I did ‘Chelsea Hotel’ last year and they asked me to do it again, so...” Miles says. “I chose to do ‘Chelsea Hotel’ because it's not only one of the most beautiful songs I've ever heard, but it tells a great story about a specific time in New York that makes me wish I had been there, or been Leonard Cohen, if you know what I mean...”

“I chose ‘Who By Fire’ because I love the lyrics,” Miles continues. “The lyrics are the big sell for Leonard Cohen's work as far as I'm concerned. He was a writer who turned to music to make a living, and his lyrics are light years beyond the typical ‘pop’ bullshit you hear out of 99% of musical acts these days.”

Megan King says that she was first introduced to Leonard Cohen through Jeff Buckley’s cover of “Hallelujah.” The first time I heard the lyric ‘it goes like this the 4th, the 5th, the minor fall, and the major lift/the baffled king composing hallelujah,’ I imagined David composing this song almost by accident, feeling the compelling of heavenly powers inside of it.”

King continues: “But Cohen takes it further by making it real, and human. ‘She tied you to her kitchen chair, and she broke your throne and she cut your hair…’ and ‘it's not a cry that you hear at night, it's not somebody whose seen the light/it's a cold and it's a broken hallelujah’ At that point, I was hooked.”

King says when she plays out, she usually performs “Hallelujah,” but for the show she took the opportunity to look through her Leonard Cohen CDs for a couple more obscure gems, choosing "Dance Me to the End of Love" and "Ain't No Way to Say Goodbye." “I chose these two specifically for their poetic lyrics,” she says. “I love the way Cohen juxtaposes love with just about anything. His use of metaphor and simile is striking and heart wrenching.”

“He has an ability to trap you in his songs, and steal a piece of you. Lyrics like ‘Your hair upon a pillow like a sleepy golden storm’ and ‘oh let me see your beauty when the witnesses are gone…’ I hear things like this, and I think... ‘this is why I write on napkins and on my hand and on the backs of takeout menus when inspiration strikes.’ It's these tiny truths that lay hidden and sometimes take a peek into our daily lives.”

Fort Wayne Cultural Affairs presents The Encore Performance of the All-Star Birthday Tribute to Leonard Cohen
Sunday, October 3 at 7 pm
Calhoun Street Soups, Salads, & Spirits
1915 South Calhoun
Performers: Lee Miles, Megan King, Joe Martyn Ricke, The Afrodisiacs, The Mimi Burns Band, The Joel Gragg Trio, Jeff McDonald, The Tear Jerks w/Richard Reprogle and Kenny Taylor and more TBA.

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