For those of you who missed Leonard Cohen in the latter part of his career, after hard times hit; after he was robbed by his manager; when he emerged from narcissistic to nice; from haughty and naughty to humble and gracious; as the years stripped him of hedonist urges and laid him bare, a voice, just a voice, but retaining the musical majesty of his muse: if you missed that, and I was one, then an Imperfect Offering is perfect, just perfect. Well, almost, if you don't ever allow yourself to venture that far.
And so it was this past weekend when Peter McMillan and his band of angels came out of annual hibernation to transport us back and forward to join Leonard Cohen in joyous immortality, a labour of love and an evening of theatrical splendour with superb arrangements which echoed the Leonard Live in London recordings and more, as new material comes to light through posthumous release.
And it is with specific reference to the album released after his death that we gather at the Pumphouse Theatre in Takapuna to give Thanks For The Dance. It’s not a church, it’s a theatre, and while Leonard occasionally and most memorably resorted to prayer, his was not a conventional god, and most definitely female. So, the theatre is more appropriate for homage and imperfect offerings.
And tonight’s offering spans the full Cohen career, from his debut as a singer/songwriter after failure as a novelist with The Songs of Leonard Cohen in 1967, to 2019’s posthumous Thanks for the Dance. 24 songs from 11 of his 15 albums. Greatest Hits? Not quite, it’s astounding how many there are, it’s like peeking into Elton John’s repertoire and being similarly amazed at a body of work which is often forgotten. And so, we have to ration some of the songs to once only over the two nights in order to do justice. I get “Bird on a Wire” instead of “Suzanne” and my only regret is that I missed “Suzanne” last year, but it’s so familiar I can almost sing it to myself ( with my voice on mute). And “Joan of Arc” instead of “Chelsea Hotel” but I heard the latter last year, in full linguistic splendour. And at least I get “So Long Marianne”, instead of “Closing Time” so I am more than sated.
As the band strikes up and leads us into “Dance Me to the End of Love”, which is already a poem in one line, we are transported to the Greek Islands, a kind of Mediterranean salsa, to mix my geographical metaphors, with soaring violin and crisp guitar licks and heavenly harmonies from the three voices on display and the lover of women and words is interpreted through Peter McMillan’s smooth high baritone, to identify the elephant in the room, which is that the songs of Leonard Cohen are not going to be sung in the deep bass, almost monotone drawl which we are used to. At least for the most part. For the most part, we are treated like a bird on a wire, soaring in song as Amy and Clare sing together, sing solo, sing with Peter and then, from time to time, gloriously all three together. And the band also come in, to form a celestial choir. More on that in a bit.
Repent, repent, we wonder what they meant, sometime in “The Future”, (I’m not going to apologise while still alive). And Peter Snow comes back to the band on balalaika as the “Famous Blue Raincoat’ is taken off like that same bird taking off from the wire, and “I’m Your Man” and a prayer from Various Positions (”If It Be Your Will”) and other songs before "First We Take Manhattan" after being baptised in "Hallelujah" (with a verse in Te Reo) and we need a break. Deep breath.
In Set Two we go back to 1974 for New Skins for the Old Ceremony’s “Who By Fire” before affirming what we knew, there “Ain’t No Cure For Love” (who knew, actually, that that is a Cohen song?) and then accelerating through Old Ideas to the immediate past, which is also the present, and the sombre shadows of You Want It Darker, which is a question as well as an album as well as a song, and the finality of Thanks for the Dance. But if it is at all possible for a song to steal the show, especially this show, then Hineni Hineni, sings the celestial chorus of “You Want It Darker”. I am here, naked, exposed, helpless in mercy, I’m ready, my lord, kill the flame. Because now we are treated to the missing voice, which has now acquired a distinctly Kiwi accent as Nigel Pizzini is possessed and out pops Leonard from his hijacked mouth.
And to close this set we go back to The Future, and Peter speaks the lines, as Leonard used to do, to preface “The Anthem”.
“Ring the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering, there is a crack, a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in...”
Well thank goodness for cracks, and thank goodness for imperfection, and “Thanks for the Dance” and “Listen to the Hummingbird”, whose wings you cannot see, listen to the hummingbird, don’t listen to me.
And with those words of perfect, well, almost perfect irony, the night is over, until tomorrow night.
Imperfect Offering are Peter McMillan on high baritone, Amy Skeates and Clare Martin on gorgeous voice and harmony, Nick Jones on the violin man, Rian Bond Kannemeyer on sensitive lead guitar, Nigel Pizzini on subtle acoustic and occasional vocal channel, Jonathan Meyer on bass with Paul Naveen on drums providing the backbone of rhythm and time, and Ben Fernandez providing sonorific beauty on the keyboards.
Peter Snow sneaks in a couple of times on balalaika, and G Fleury keeps track of the sound. A band of gypsies and teachers, professional and amateur, who love their work, as most surely do we.
Imperfect Offering are playing in Wellington next weekend and in Nelson the following week. A treat is in store for the middle country.
BOOKINGS for Imperfect Offering in Wellington and Nelson HERE
- Dance Me to the End of Love (Various Positions, 1984)
- Bird on a Wire (Songs from a Room, 1969)/ Suzanne (Songs of Leonard Cohen, 1967)
- The Future (The Future, 1992)
- Famous Blue Raincoat (Songs of Love and Hate, 1971)
- Lover Lover Lover (New Skin for the Old Ceremony, 1974/ Everybody Knows (I’m Your Man, 1988)
- Joan of Arc (Songs of Love and Hate, 1971)/ Chelsea Hotel (New Skin from the Old Ceremony, 1974)
- I’m Your Man (I’m Your Man, 1988)
- Alexandra Leaving (Ten New Songs, 2001)
- If It Be Your Will (Various Positions, 1984)
- Hallelujah (Various Positions, 1984)
- First We Take Manhattan (I’m Your Man, 1988)
- Who By Fire (New Skin for the Old Ceremony, 1974)
- Ain’t No Cure for Love (I’m Your Man, 1988)
- Come Healing (Old Ideas, 2012)
- Going Home (Old Ideas, 2012)
- Travelling Light (You Want It Darker, 2016)
- Happens to The Heart (Thanks for the Dance, 2019)
- The Hills (Thanks for the Dance, 2019)
- You Want it Darker (You Want it Darker, 2016)
- The Goal (Thanks for the Dance,2019)
- Anthem (The Future, 1992)
- So Long Marianne (Songs of Leonard Cohen, 1967)/ Closing Time (The Future,1992)
- Thanks for the Dance (Thanks for the dance, 2019)
- Listen to the Hummingbird (Thanks for the Dance, 2019)