Hal Willner presented:

An Evening of Songs
by Leonard Cohen
Under the Stars

Brooklyn’s Prospect Park
New York, June 28, 2003

Report by Dick Straub
Photos by Linda and Dick Straub

Hal Willner has spearheaded a multitude of efforts that have received high praise over the years. I am hardly an unbiased observer as my appreciation of all things Cohen colors my evaluations. Still, I could never have predicted the magnificent success of the June 28, 2003 Hal Willner production – Came So Far for Beauty, An Evening of Songs by Leonard Cohen Under the Stars, in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park.

Nick Cave

Julie Christensen

Perla Batalla

Rufus Wainwright

Martha Wainwright

Linda Thompson

The Handsome Family

Kate McGarrigle

Anna McGarrigle

Rufus Wainwright and Nick Cave

Many fans say they would much rather hear Leonard sing Leonard than listen to anyone else cover his songs, including me. In spite of that, I can’t imagine anyone who was at this live concert not appreciating the respectful, highly polished interpretations presented. Leonard’s songs of course are the foundation, and talented professional musicians are essential, but Willner deserves kudos from the Gods on high for bringing together this full night. A reported 11,000 lucky people, the largest turnout in the 25 year history of this popular concert series, were treated to a spectacular three hours of Cohen wonders in gorgeous weather.

The old debate of how Cohen songs could sound with full instrumentation has gained new fuel. The incredible backup musicians, led by trumpeter Steven Bernstein, gave positive evidence that no matter how great the original arrangements are a full band with horns can also give immense power to Cohen songs. Willner’s line up of stars was inspired, and the artists complimented each other as if they had worked together for ages. The slips expected when artists are working with unfamiliar materials were very minimal, and if anything helped add to the relaxed, fun-filled atmosphere of the entire evening.

My highlights – Nick Cave’s Diamonds in the Mine, Martha Wainwrights’ Tower of Song and Traitor solos, Perla Batalla and Julie Christensen’s exquisite Anthem, Perla’s Bird on a Wire, and Rufus Wainwright’s Hallelujah. Then there was The Handsome Family’s Ballad of the Absent Mare, and Laurie Anderson and Kate and Anna McGarrigle and Linda and Teddy Thompson and great instrumentals, and more Nick and Rufus, and it goes on. The key to the spine-tingling evening may be that there was not one performance that “just didn’t work.” Further, there were thrillingly successful moments in almost every one of the songs. A top one – Perla called out “Sing it Esther, you know the words,” recognizing Leonard’s delightful sister during a high moment in Anthem.

After O Canada, on tape, everybody opened with There is A War. Nick, Rufus, Martha and Teddy Thompson were in front, and the other performers were on stage in the background, getting the night off to a high flying start. Cave kept everyone jumping with I’m Your Man. Then Linda Thompson joined with Kate and Anna McGarrigle in a very tender rendering of Seems So Long Ago, Nancy. Linda continued with Story of Isaac. She then was joined by The Handsome Family in a very moving Thousands Kisses Deep.

Laurie Anderson teamed beautifully with Julie and Perla on The Guests. Martha’s Tower of Song followed, and Rob Burger on piano led the full band in a rousing Tacoma Trailer. Rufus gets better each time he sings Hallelujah in my opinion, and this evening’s performance validates my view. The Handsome Family has a sound that fits very naturally with Cohen’s work, and their Ballad of the Absent Mare was next, followed by the night’s title song, Came So Far for Beauty, by Kate and Anna. Nick next got the audience swaying and singing along to Diamonds in the Mine. Julie then softly mellowed us again with a lovely version of A Singer Must Die and Teddy brought the first act to closure with Tonight Will be Fine.

Guitarist Marc Ribot's Improvisation worked as the intro to Kate and Anna’s You Know Who I Am to open Act 2, followed by Mark Anthony Thompson’s Dress Rehearsal Rag. Martha gave a hauntingly beautiful edge to Traitor and nothing but beauty followed for the rest of the evening. The Handsome Family sound was perfect for Heart With No Companion. Perla’s Bird on a Wire was in the same league as Cash and Nelson. Rufus and Chelsea Hotel 2 were as if born together. Laurie joined Julie and Perla in a beauteous If it Be Your Will, The Handsome Family performed Famous Blue Raincoat and Linda sang the second of the “Ten New Songs,” Alexandra Leaving.

Nick joined Julie and Perla on Suzanne, and while some lyric pages blew away, the interpretation worked well anyway. Teddy impressed with a sardonic, rocking The Future, which he noted, “seems an awful lot like now.” Rufus wise-cracked he was celebrating the legalization of sodomy, and joined with his mom on what he called “the Leonard Cohen meets Doris Day version” of Everybody Knows. He claimed his intention was “to fag it up” and gave an enjoyable interpretation. Winter Lady was liltingly sung by Kate and Anna, then Perla and Julie brought hearts into throats with Anthem. Concluding on another rocking, jazzy note, Rufus and Nick sang and danced together on Don’t Go Home With Your Hard On.

Although there was no encore, all the artists received closing recognition, with cheers and applause, and Hal Willner finally took a bow at the end. The additional musicians directed by Steven Bernstein, as listed in the program, included Michael Blake, sax, Charlie Burnham, violin, Don Falzone, bass, Maxim Moster and Joan Wasser, violins and Kenny Wollesen, drums. An additional horn player performed that wasn’t in the program. As were the vocalists, all musicians were superb.

Willner has earlier Cohen productions to his credit – in 1992 he featured Leonard reading a Mingus poem on his “Weird Nightmare” release. His prior projects have explored works by Nino Roto, Thelonious Monk, Edgar Allen Poe, Kurt Weill, Tim Buckley, Charles Mingus, and Harold Arlen, and he writes that Leonard is the first of his subjects that is still alive and active in his art. He describes “what I consider the most successful and magical of my genre-free collaborations/collisions (was) a segment of the “Night Music” television show with Leonard, Julie, Perla, & Was (Not Was) performing “Who by Fire” with his honor Sonny Rollins.” Willner notes that Cohen’s “music has a depth of emotion, passion, and humor that is entirely his own. It is a singular world. It ain’t background music! To those who ‘get it,’ it’s kind of a religion.”

Here’s hoping that Mr. Willner doesn’t lose his religion, and that this truly remarkable evening can be approximated again. Thousands more deserve to be transported to the skies as were we lucky ones in Brooklyn Saturday night. And, in my fervent dreams, a recording of the next Came So Far for Beauty session would definitely be an additional WOW - Wonder of Willner!

Read more about the concert on the next page

Text © 2003 Dick Straub
Photos © 2003 Linda and Dick Straub
Used with permission. All rights reserved.
Any other use forbidden.