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Keith James: The Songs of Leonard Cohen – Norwegian Church Arts Centre, Cardiff

Reviewer: Barbara Michaels


keithjamesRaw with emotion, enigmatic and evocative – the songs of Leonard Cohen, arguably the most mysterious and sub-textual songwriter the English-speaking world has ever known, can with truth be said to speak for themselves. Acoustic guitarist and singer Keith James, himself a songwriter and a fine exponent of the genre of folk and modern folk, brings an added dimension to Cohen’s iconic lyrics, while conscious of the need to retain the original ethos of Cohen’s work.

A soft-spoken raconteur, he introduces the set he has chosen for the UK tour with a becoming modesty, managing to impart information in a way which gives gravitas to the songs. While not strictly in chronological order, the programme is almost biopic in the overview of Cohen’s life and the raison d’être which gave birth to the lyrics. Born in 1934 in Montreal, Cohen was part of the cult folk revival that existed in New York in the mid-Sixties. James’ set ranges from that time through the mid-Eighties and onwards, taking in Sisters of Mercy, Everybody Knows and the unbelievably poignant If It Be Your Will, paring each of the songs back to their inner core with a sensitive and understated delivery that is easy on the ear. However, possibly due to this venue being the 152nd concert of this tour, James has a tendency at times to drop his voice fractionally too low, resulting in a loss of tonal depth which makes it difficult to hear the end of some of the lines of the songs.

To be fair, this is not the case with those based on the poetry of Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, best known in the UK as the author of Blood Wedding, which James himself has set to music. Cohen was greatly influenced by Lorca’s work and James’ performance of Take This Waltz, originally written by Lorca as The Little Viennese Waltz and inspired by his 1929s collection Poetry in New York is a melodic start to the second half of the programme, followed by the more strident yet haunting music of the flamenco which forms a background to The Unfaithful Wife.

Not surprisingly, James includes a song by Joni Mitchell – another of his favourite songwriters – taken from a previous album The Great Canadian Songbook, and later goes out on a limb by, as he puts it, “daring to introduce” one of his own songs – The Circle Song, based on what he describes as “the nuggets of truth” that occur in life, which this packed audience of Cohen aficionados receives with tolerant applause.

Tellingly, the most rousing acclamation is for two of Cohen’s best-known works – Bird on a Wire and Hallelujah! which James cunningly holds back until the end of the concert, thus ensuring tumultuous applause as he leaves the stage.

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