Keith James presents the Songs of Leonard Cohen
by Kevin Mathew
Keith James’ presented a beautiful and enigmatic understanding of the structure, meaning and the very essence of Leonard Cohen’s songs. Whilst some songs present a lacklustre and mechanical arrangement, his interpretations are well executed and supported by his exceptionally skilled guitar arrangements and vocal flexibility.
For six decades, Leonard Cohen crafted a language that music had never heard before. The humanity behind his songs examined the core of religion, politics, isolation, sexuality and personal relationships. Cohen laid the foundation for what music and poetry could be, leaving a touching note that will resonate forever. Those who study his work walk in the footsteps of a master who held a strong command of poetry and storytelling. Therefore, it is safe to say that Keith James, an artist with more than a decade of experience in musical interpretation, walked a tight rope when he took on the enormous task of bringing the artistry of Cohen to Aberdeen’s stage. When he stripped Cohen back to the final Russian doll, using only a guitar, his voice and a decent sense of humour, there was no safety net to be seen. However, James landed just fine – most of the time. He stood just in front of the mic, four guitars surrounding him like throne, and why not? After 403 shows and seven years on the road, he is a veteran of his craft, deserving of crown and throne. Be that as it may be, James’ had a practically automated reaction to his own performance, a few songs that felt emotionless in the first set surprised me from a scholar of Cohen's music. The small things were hallmarks of a mechanical set: sometimes a song felt a little too accurate, sometimes he needed to look at the chords a little too much, and sometimes his eyes glanced more at the fretboard rather than at his audience. There were no moments where the audience could hear, the reserved Keith James flinch and hurt from the beauty of Cohen's sorrow, from his humanity and from his heartbreak – as a musician, you can tell when a set is nothing more than the repetitive backdrop of someone’s career.
The first set was composed of obscure songs from Leonard's early career. The guitar was repetitive but carried the rhythm well, and Keith James demonstrated balance of tone and phrasing. He eloquently pulled the disguised and wry humour of Cohen together for the easy heartbreakers, such as 'Everybody Knows' and 'Dance me to the end of love'. Despite this, the first set was a slight miss, it felt like no amount of virtuoso guitar playing or sonorous vocals could pull it back. Simply, the hidden brutality of Cohen's lyrics didn’t seem to play out in James' words.
The second set was constructed entirely from new metal, Keith James performed some of Cohen’s career makers such as 'First We Take Manhattan' and 'Sisters of Mercy'. Yet, nothing struck through as powerfully as 'If It Be Your Will': bare and beautiful, the humming throughout the song was trance-inducing, and the high notes presented a unique interpretation of Cohen’s poetry. The crisp and dynamic vocal tones held together by the warm and percussive guitar was a whole new world from the first set. We then heard two deconstructions of Cohen's song, the deconstruction of 'Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye', presented an unusual interpretation. The original song, jointly written with Grammy-nominated Judy Collins, relies on offset vocals and harmonies to create balance between the tidal roll of guitar notes and Cohen’s high vocals. The low vocal range James constructed was well complemented by the guitar’s complex rhythmic structure and monophonic textures, this presented a curiously tender and expressive version of this song. This deconstruction, whilst not losing Cohen’s characteristic vocal highs, held its own against Judy Collin’s octave-leaping arrangement.
Through his studies of Cohen, James not only understood but lived the story that Cohen told, he was able carefully pull Cohen’s poetry apart and put it back together against his guitar, showing a truly remarkable achievement from a clearly gifted musician.
In the end, James gave the audience what they wanted, he gave them Cohen as best he could. We laughed at his stories, we shared in his tragedy and we sang with his songs. His interpretation of Cohen never lost the trait that made Cohen so great: a subversive, brutal, and vulnerable poetry set to brilliant music.