Leonard Cohen

The Leonard Cohen classic-album concert series begins this week

Musical director Li’l Andy on putting together a band to salute a legend, and what it’s like inside the tower of song.

Leonard Cohen

The Leonard Cohen concert series being presented as part of the Musée d’art contemporain’s ongoing exhibition A Crack in Everything begins tomorrow, Thursday, Nov. 30.

Coming a few weeks after the all-star, greatest-hits tribute show at the Bell Centre (featuring Sting, Elvis Costello, k.d. Lang, Lana Del Rey and many more — to be televised by CBC on Jan. 3, incidentally), 5 Albums 5 Concerts will be a smaller scale affair featuring local musicians taking a more thorough and ambitious approach to the legendary singer-songwriter’s work. The core band — led by Montreal folk/country artist Li’l Andy, with guest singers including Martha Wainwright, Coeur de Pirate, Un Blonde, Pierre Kwenders and Marie Pierre Arthur — will be playing five albums in their entirety at the intimate Salle Gesù.

According to Li’l Andy (the event’s musical director), this series has its foundation in an impromptu tribute that happened that night in November 2016, when we all heard the news about Cohen’s death.

“Me and Joe Grass  were supposed to have a show at Barfly that night,” he says. “Joe called me a few hours before the show and was like, ‘Hey, Cohen died.’ I was in shock, and I said to him, ‘Gee okay, we’ve gotta do some Cohen songs,’ and he was like, ‘Yeah man, let’s do all the ones we know.’

“At Barfly I was making a list of the songs I knew, and by the time I was at, like, 16 songs, Joe came over and looked at my notes and he was like, ‘You know all the words to these?’ and I was like, ‘Yeah-yeah.’ So we soundchecked and then we walked up to Cohen’s house, ’cause it’s only two blocks away from Barfly, and I met [POP Montreal’s] Dan Seligman and Jamie Thompson [the Unicorns, Islands],  who’s now the drummer for most of this concert series. I didn’t know Jamie beyond a need-to-nod basis, just ’cause we’d been in the same room several times, but I gave him a hug and I said to Dan, ‘We’ll do a tribute show. I mean there’s people singing songs here outside of his house, let’s so something at the Rialto — it’s in the neighbourhood, it’s such a great room.’ And Dan was crazy enough to organize it with me in three weeks.”

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Li’l Andy at the Leonard Cohen tribute show at the Rialto on Dec. 15, 2016. Photo by Susan Moss

Part of the team from the MAC was in the audience that night, and as the exhibition had been in the planning stages for over a year already — with Cohen’s consent and cooperation — they approached Li’l Andy about putting a band together for a series of concerts to complement their show. The albums chosen — I’m Your Man (1988), The Future (1992), New Skin for the Old Ceremony (1974), Songs From a Room (1969) and Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967) — span Cohen’s career and presented challenges for the musicians, even ones like Andy who’d been playing his songs since he was 12 years old.

“Cohen often said in interviews that when his name came up in music journalism, the computer just filled in the rest for the music journalist, and it said ‘…doesn’t know anything about music,'” Andy says. “But his songs are really complex; sometimes if they’re not complex, they’re certainly unusual and they don’t go where you think they’re going to go musically and chord-structure-wise.

“I’ve been digging into ‘Jazz Police’ off I’m Your Man all week — one of the few songs I didn’t know how to play before, and it is a crazy song. That song should not work melodically or structurally and it does. Like the rest of the album, it has this really foreboding sense of menace and sinister undertone to the whole thing. It’s been really educational to dig into those albums again.”

Starting the series with I’m Your Man — the only album that will be performed twice — was a bold move for Andy, given that it’s all keyboards, bass and drums (not exactly his instruments), but the audience shouldn’t expect a note for note approach to covering the original recordings.

“We’re respectful most of all to the tenor of the song and the story that the song is trying to tell,” Andy says. “I’m Your Man seems to come out of this bleak political or social moment in the 1980s where Cohen really… it’s not like he’s a prophet of doom, but he’s the last wise man standing after the flood. The tone on that record lyrically and the way his voice had dropped so many tones and become so deep, it’s really that record that cements people’s perception of him in his later era. So we tried to stay true to the spirit of that.

“It’s a hard balance to do music that sounds funky, which the music on I’m Your Man undeniably is, and is also kind of cruel and foreboding at the same time. That’s something that Mishka Stein can do perfectly, that’s something that Erika Angell from Thus Owls, who does back-up for this whole series, can bring that kind of tone to a song, and Simon Angell as well.”

As much as this series will be solemn in some respects, as Montrealers continue to mourn the passing of a local icon a year later, the musicians behind it hope to make it a festive affair — if not a celebration, exactly, the shows will give life to the songs that immortalize the man behind them, and continue to inspire new generations of songwriters to grasp at his greatness.

“I’ve spent so much of my life really listening to Cohen and trying to write songs that have that stab of actuality in every line,” Andy says. “By the time of I’m Your Man or The Future, it seems like every line in every song was both worked over so much that it was crystalline perfect but at the same time you don’t feel like the point is laboured. That’s his strength: his ability to speak to the horrors of the world without feeling like you’re being preached to or that he’s pontificating.

“So many people try to do songs that are ‘politically important’ and it comes off as obnoxious and trite. I’ve tried and tried to write songs that kind of work that way and I don’t feel like I’ve written that many that can stand up anywhere near his. That’s what being in the tower of song is all about: being hundreds of floors below. I think even people like Neil Young and Bob Dylan are floors below him, absolutely.” ■

The Leonard Cohen concert series 5 Albums 5 Concerts, in conjunction with the exhibition A Crack in Everything at the MAC, are happening at the Gesù (1200 Bleury) from Nov. 30  through March 28. All the shows are sold out.