Lyrically Profound: Review of Keith James’ The Songs of Leonard Cohen at Durham Book Festival

Leonard Cohen may be best-known as a musician, but he was inspired by and wrote poetry too. Keith James’s intimate performance at Durham Book Festival drew songs and literature together, while bringing the audience – among them Emon Keshavarz – into tuneful chorus.

The deeply spiritual aspects of Leonard Cohen’s life and the religious iconography present in his work meant that St Chad’s College Chapel, with its stirring acoustics and sacred space, provided a quaint, intimate, and pertinent setting for Keith James’s excellent concert.

Stephen Regan introduced James to the audience and, in doing so, recounted his personal memory of a four-hour performance at Lissadell House, holiday home of W.B. Yeats, in 2010, where Cohen paid homage to the poet (‘I did not come to Yeats Country to fool you’ was included in his version of ‘Hallelujah’ that night). This proved to be an appropriate anecdote with which to begin an evening so concerned with the connection between music and poetry. Regan concluded his introduction with a reading of Cohen’s poem ‘A Kite is a Victim’, but a minor technical issue meant that he was accompanied by a tranquil piano piece. Far from cheapening the reading, this unintended pairing provided a fitting foundation for James’s setlist, which included a collection of Cohen’s most poetic and lyrically profound songs as well as two poems by Cohen’s literary idol, Federico Garcia Lorca, that James has put to music.

James began his acoustic set with ‘Anthem’, before following-up with what he describes as Cohen’s ‘grumpiest’ song, ‘Everybody Knows’. The performance of ‘Dance Me to the End of Love’ and, later, ‘First We Take Manhattan’, is where the stripped-back nature of his recitals is most apparent, given the relative complexity of Cohen’s original recordings. This, however, is no criticism of James, who skilfully delivered a gentler rendition of these tracks without compromising the harshness of their lyrics.

James briefly moved away from Cohen’s work, performing his own interpretation of Lorca’s poem ‘El Mascarón’ alongside an impressive exhibition of flamenco guitar-playing before asking a willing (and tuneful) audience to accompany him on the titular line of ‘Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye’. He ended the first-half with a captivating cover of what he deems to be Cohen’s best song, ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’, with other potential contenders to this accolade being performed after the interval, including ‘Suzanne’, ‘Bird on the Wire’, and ‘Chelsea Hotel #2’. There was another adaptation of Lorca’s poetry (‘I’m Going to Santiago’) and the audience were called upon again for a rousing performance of ‘So Long, Marianne’.

The concert ended with a remarkable rendition of ‘Hallelujah’. All members of the audience were asked to contribute to the chorus, but it was a feminine tone that dominated the chapel. There was an inevitable reminder here of so much of Cohen’s work in which female voices are routinely utilised, acting at times as an additional instrument; and given the song in question and the spiritual setting in which it was being performed, James (and indeed his audience) produced a worthy finale to a superb evening.

Keith James is touring his performance The Songs of Leonard Cohen at four other venues acros the UK in 2018. Durham Book Festival ran from 6th to 14th October 2018.Durham Book Festival

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