Tribute concert produced by Hal Willner

January 2005

by Andrew Bartlett

I own every album recorded by Nick Cave and every album recorded by Leonard Cohen, so I was very keen to see Nick and others perform in the unique Cohen tribute show - Came So Far for Beauty. There were three performances of the show. Reviews of the first show on the Friday night were provided in The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald. I was lucky to be able to see the final show on the Sunday night. Seeing I made a list of all 34 songs played by a moveable feast of 14 different vocalists, I thought I would indulge myself with my own review of the show.

Given the undoubtedly limited amount of time which the band and their continually changing combination of singers would have had to rehearse for the project, the quality of the performance was exceptionally high. The musical styles used in interpreting so many different songs would have provided quite a challenge even for a permanent band, let alone one pulled together just for these three performances. The acoustics of the Sydney Opera House don't seem to be too kind to full-on rocking, which may also have made life harder on stage.

I saw the third and final performance, and it's reasonable to assume this would have been the tightest and most confident of the performances. Certainly, all the performers looked very comfortable on stage, despite a number of different singers reading some of the lyrics at various times. As the lyrics are such a magical part of Cohen's work, it was an understandable, if slightly off-putting safety net.

The show kicked off with Nick Cave taking the lead in front of a number of vocalists in a rocking rendition of There is a War. The thinness of the drum sound in the early stages meant that it probably didn't pound along in quite the manner intended, but it was a good enough warm up. While the others departed, Nick stayed on stage for I'm Your Man, moving around the stage, emphasising words by pointing to the audience in the front rows in a manner very familiar to those who have seem him perform live.

The tag-team arrangement saw Nick disappear and Kate & Anna McGarrigle and Linda Thompson appear, combining some sweet folksy harmonies for Seems so Long Ago, Nancy. Then Linda got the chance to display some of her special vocal talents on a haunting version of The Story of Isaac, and stayed on to back up our first glimpse of The Handsome Family - a duo I had not heard of previously who have a gothic country style. They performed one of the most contemporary selections of the night, A Thousand Kisses Deep, from 2001's 10 New Songs album. The female half of the couple, Rennie Sparks, looks like she would be even more suited to playing Morticia Addams than Anjelica Huston. Her partner, Brett Sparks, instantly reminded me of John Goodman in looks and voice, with a hint of the rich deepness of Johnny Cash thrown in.

Next up, we were introduced to Martha Wainwright-at this stage of her career still better known as sister of Rufus and daughter of Kate McGarrigle (although her new release has a very rude title and a nude photo, which are the sorts of things that some people find memorable). She did an up-tempo country music take on Tower of Song, complete with a nasal twang reminiscent of Tammy Wynette. Despite the variety of lead singers I've already mentioned, a consistent presence in the background were Julie Christensen and Perla Batalla - two women with experience as backing singers on Leonard Cohen albums and tours. As on Cohen's recordings, the significance of these women's contribution shouldn't be underestimated, providing both a strong echo of Cohen's sound and a solid foundation which gave all the other singers the freedom to try their styles and interpretations.

Christensen and Batalla stepped to the front of the stage for the next song along with a tall man who shuffled onto stage in an awkwardly shy way. His long black hair obscured some of his face. I looked through the program in the gloom trying to guess who it might be - maybe Jarvis Cocker had grown his hair? Maybe I was wrong about what Rufus Wainwright looked like? The song was The Guests, with the female singers playing a part very similar to the original. But the man doing the lead vocal produced a rendition which could only be described as breath-taking. By the time the song was finished, the question "who is that guy" had become much more pressing - it was on the lips of everyone in the audience! It was truly a show-stealing performance by the unknown singer - a rendition somewhat reminiscent in style to Jeff Buckley's live version of Hallelujah from years ago, but with an angelic purity that swooped and soared, both powerful and fragile, a voice of rare beauty that left the hairs standing up on the back of your neck.

To steal a quote from a review by The Guardian when he performed at a show in London last year, "fluttering between a keening falsetto and a lower register with all the richness of a mature black female voice, it's one of those unique instruments that channel emotion with such purity you can't quite believe you are in the same room." The applause was undoubtedly the loudest of the night, driven by astonishment as well as appreciation. Ten songs later when the intermission occurred, literally everybody I spoke with or overheard was talking about his performance and seeking information about this man, whose name turned out to be Antony. The Sydney shows were his first appearance in this project, with him filling the role played by Laurie Anderson in the Brighton performances of the shows in 2004 and in Brooklyn in 2003. I quite like some of Laurie Anderson's stuff, but I think Australia got the better option.

Perhaps because Antony would have been such a hard act to follow for any other singer, the following song was an instrumental, Tacoma Trailer, which winds up The Future album. A full family affair was next with the McGarrigle sisters plus Rufus & Martha Wainwright doing Who By Fire, then Rufus Wainwright sat at the piano to do his version of Hallelujah, as heard by millions on the soundtrack album for the movie Shrek. Next came Beth Orton giving her first performance of the evening with Stories of the Street, which also included some haunting passages played on the musical saw, an instrument that made a number of effective contributions throughout the evening.

The Handsome Family returned to do a country style version of Ballad of the Absent Mare, which was similar in style to the original. Jarvis Cocker, frontman for the defunct/dormant Pulp, made his first appearance for the night, playing a support role with Martha and Beth to Nick Cave, who gave a lot of extra menace to Diamonds in the Mine. With the full band kicking in, it had a lot more punch than the original. Another real highlight followed, with Julie Christensen taking a front role for the first time to perform A Singer Must Die. This was a good blend of irony and tragedy, played in a style reminiscent of a Brecht-Weill musical. Teddy Thompson followed with a version of Tonight Will Be Fine, played in a manner reminiscent of Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska or The Rising albums.

Then Jarvis Cocker came on to tell those in the crowd who were dying for a toilet break or a drink that this was the last song before intermission, but to warn them that it was 9 minutes long. He and Beth Orton teamed up for a good duet of Death of a Ladies Man, the title track of the Cohen album produced by Phil Spector, which Cohen has described as 'grotesque'. However, despite some wildly inappropriate instrumentation, the album does contain some fascinating lyrical excursions, such as this song.

Intermission time and everyone went outside to find out about the guy who sang The Guests. While Antony was listed in the program, his photo looked absolutely nothing like him. However, through a process of elimination coupled with wide questioning, his identity was established.

The second set started with the McGarrigles & Martha Wainwright doing You Know Who I Am. Whilst her harmonies were spot on and she clearly has a great vocal range, I must confess Martha's nasal twang was starting to grate on me a bit, a feeling not softened by her solo role that followed on The Traitor. However, with a show like this, no one held centre stage for long, and the Handsome Family reappeared to perform Heart With No Companion . If I remember correctly, this one included a banjo, just to drive home the country vibe - a bit different, but it worked quite well. Beth Orton returned next for Sisters of Mercy , then Jarvis Cocker reappeared, hamming it up for I Can't Forget , a song which contains a goodly amount of self-mockery even in its natural state. Two different people commented to me that Cocker's stage mannerisms were very reminiscent of former Go-Betweens frontman Robert Forster.

The other 'backing singer', Perla Batalla, stepped forward next to sing Bird on the Wire. I feel a bit harsh in saying I didn't like this much, but while she clearly has a magnificent voice and sang with real passion, it was almost Celine Dion-like in style, with long drawn out notes at every opportunity.

Rufus Wainwright reappeared to do a fairly straightforward version of Chelsea Hotel, one of the few Cohen songs I don't like much - its indiscrete nature sort of taints it for me. My mild disappointment faded quickly with the much anticipated return of Antony, who made an accurate observation about how sexy young Rufus is. It was impossible to top his earlier appearance, as he had lost the surprise factor, but he came pretty close. If It Be Your Will was the lucky recipient of his vocal caresses this time, in a manner almost reminiscent of Nina Simone, and once again embellished by Christensen & Batalla.

The Handsome Family gave a mournful treatment to the wistful Famous Blue Raincoat, followed by some more vocal beauty by Linda Thompson on Alexandra Leaving. She was accompanied by son Teddy, who looked just like a teenage son who had to do something in public with his mum - scruffy jeans, hands shoved in his pockets, and looking down at the floor. This song is one which did not feature Christensen & Batalla on backing vocals and which would have benefited if it did. It is their voices which really give the song something special on the original recording and it was a bit frustrating that they weren't part of this performance.

They reappeared for probably the best known Cohen song - Suzanne, with Nick Cave leading the way and even singing some harmonies quite well (I don't mean to sound like I was surprised, although I sort of was a bit).

Teddy Thompson got to sing without his mum next and did a good rendition of the title track from The Future. As I'd spent the last couple of months pondering various political futures, the lyric "get ready for the future, it is murder" had some special resonance for me.

Rufus then came back, noting how sexy young Teddy was and proceeded to "fag it up" (to use his description) for a tango/caberet style version of Everybody Knows, along with the rest of his family. It worked well. Rufus left the rest of them to it with Winter Lady, followed by another real highlight - Perla Batalla & Julie Christensen together on Anthem. A song about the hope that can be found in failure - maybe a bit of an antidote to The Future - these two women performed on the original and gave it even more of a - yes, anthemic quality.

This was followed by an introduction of all the band members, including the guy on the saw, which meant we were getting to the end. The trumpet player who was also the musical director of the whole show had been bugging me a bit all night by conducting the band in the background, frequently gesticulating to the drummer on timing and volume. I must say that as a drummer, nothing would annoy me more than some guy continually trying to control the tempo and timing, which should be the drummers' job in my view. However that probably just means I'm a prima donna, and given how well the band performed I can't really begrudge his efforts.

The grand finale was another full-blown, Phil Spector style, wall of sound rendition of another track from the Phil Spector produced album. Don't Go Home With Your Hard On featured everyone (including the show's producers) on backing vocals, with lead vocals on the four verses passing between Rufus Wainwright, Jervis Cocker, Nick Cave and Teddy Thompson. I'm sure it's not just my innate Nick-bias, but his voice had far more power and strength (maybe it was just good old fashioned VOLUME) than the other guys and it was a good windup to the evening before they all did their thank yous and waved goodbye.

Standing ovations and what passes for floor stomping in the Opera House followed, and Anna McGarrigle, Perla Batalla & Julie Christensen obliged us all by reappearing to perform Came So Far for Beauty, which seemed very apt.

After 190 minutes on stage and 34 songs, closing out the night - and the whole tour - came the third song for the evening from the 'grotesque' Phil Spector produced album. Maybe Phil is finally forgiven? Again the stage was filled with the whole cast and the band launched into Memories. There was some great interplay between Jarvis Cocker and Beth Orton, who had lots of fun reprising their interplay from earlier in the night, Jarvis rounding out the first verse with the plaintive "won't you let me see your naked body", Beth unequivocally answering in the negative in the next verse and Nick Cave, always a good choice to sing about naked women, doing the last verse dueting with Antony, who was rather drowned out in the melange. Lots of "woah, woah, woes" emanated from the backing gang before they marched off stage left. For the rest of us, there was no option but to shuffle outside, where the heart paused for breath and the day returned too soon.

The show was sold out and seemed to have people of all ages and 'types'. I saw Tim Freedman from The Whitlams in amongst the masses, as was Lindy Morrison, the drumming heartbeat of the Go-Betweens who is almost certainly the only person in the world who has survived the twin tests of sharing a flat in London with Nick Cave and standing as a candidate for the Australian Democrats - I'm not sure which would be scarier.

The performance was filmed, so maybe it will appear one day somewhere in some form and you can decide for yourself whether any of my perceptions expressed here were right.

A full song list follows for ease of reference and just to remove any doubt that this review is far too long

First set: 90 minutes

Backing singers of Julie Christensen & Perla Batalla played a major role in many songs

1. There is a War - Nick Cave on lead with Julie Christensen & Perla Batalla plus others
2. I'm Your Man - Nick Cave
3. Seemed So Long Ago, Nancy - McGarrigles and Linda Thompson
4. Story of Isaac - Linda Thompson
5. One Thousand Kisses Deep - Handsome Family & Linda Thompson
6. Tower of Song - Martha Wainwright
7. The Guests - Antony
8. Tacoma Trailer - instrumental
9. Who By Fire - the McGarrigles plus Rufus & Martha Wainwright
10. Hallelujah (as heard on Shrek) - Rufus Wainwright on piano, plus Martha Wainwright, Rennie Sparks & Antony
11. Stories of the Street - Beth Orton
12. Ballad of the Absent Mare - Handsome Family
13. Diamonds in the Mine -Nick Cave with Beth Orton, Jarvis Cocker and Martha Wainwright
14. A Singer Must Die - Julie Christensen
15. Tonight Will be Fine - Teddy Thompson
16. Death of a Ladies Man - Jarvis Cocker & Beth Orton


2nd set - 100 minutes

17. You Know Who I Am - The McGarrigles & Martha Wainwright
18. The Traitor - Martha Wainwright
19. Heart with No Companion - Handsome Family
20. Sisters of Mercy - Beth Orton
21. I Can't Forget - Jarvis Cocker
22. Bird on the Wire - Perla Batalla
23. Chelsea Hotel - Rufus Wainwright
24. If It be Your Will - Antony with Julie Christensen & Perla Batalla
25. Famous Blue Raincoat - Handsome Family
26. Alexandra Dreaming - Linda Thompson with Teddy
27. Suzanne - Nick Cave and Julie Christensen & Perla Batalla
28. The Future - Teddy Thompson
29. Everybody Knows - Rufus & Martha Wainwright & the McGarrigles
30. Winter Lady - The McGarrigles & Martha Wainwright
31. Anthem - Perla Batalla & Julie Christensen
32. Don't Go Home With Your Hard On - everyone (including the producers), with lead vocals on the 4 verses shared between Rufus Wainwright, Jervis Cocker, Nick Cave, Teddy Thompson


33. I Came So Far for Beauty - Anna McGarrigle, Perla Batalla & Julie Christensen
34. Memories- everyone, with a verse each to Jarvis Cocker, Beth Orton & Nick Cave with Antony.

© 2005 Andrew Bartlett. Reprinted here by permission. All rights reserved.
Andrew Bartlett is Democrats Senator for Queensland. Connect with his website

Photos from the website of Chris Spedding. Used by permission.

Read the photo report on The first show in Brooklyn (June 2003)

More about all the artists