The spirit of Leonard Cohen was woken last Sunday night as he joined the sold-out audience at the intimate Q Theatre in Auckland, NZ to watch Imperfect Offering, an NZ band of musicians dedicated to preserving the legacy of the acclaimed poet and singer-songwriter.
I found Leonard late in his career but was lucky enough to see the man here in Auckland at the Vector Arena (before it was renamed to Spark Arena) in 2013. Like a great bottle of red wine, he had aged better than many of his peers at that concert and influenced probably more than I can count. So it was with great anticipation I turned up at the Q Theatre to see if Imperfect Offering could do the man proud and dance me to the end of love.
The focus of the show was to take the audience on a journey through his music, from his first album, Songs Of Leonard Cohen, all the way through to his final album You Want It Darker, released in 2016. Designed more like a musical tour through his life, the show highlighted certain moments that formed a huge part of Cohen, including Chelsea Hotel, the Zen Buddhist sanctuary of Mount Baldy and, of course, his muse Marianne Ihlen.
With the lights dimmed, the nine-piece band sauntered onto the stage, flooded in a sea of red, all dressed from Johnny Cash’s wardrobe. They took their spots and opened with So Long Marianne and Suzanne, from Songs of Leonard Cohen.
This was followed by the beautiful That’s No Way To Say Goodbye and Bird on the Wire.
I have to say now this was not a tribute band but a tribute to Leonard and his music. That said, the spirit of Cohen’s music was captured perfectly with the incredible talent of the whole band which included Pete Snow (guitar and balalaika), Nick Jones (violin), Rian Kannemeyer (bass), Nigel Pizzini (rhythm guitar), Paul Naveen (drums) and Ben Fernandez (keyboards).
Singing duties were shared during the course of the evening, with Peter McMillan taking the lead and the weight of not just providing the main vocals, but also the storytelling as he wove intimate anecdotes through the performance. It brought each song to life and was such a great idea, particularly for the uninitiated.
The tempo lifted as the band left the folk songs behind with Famous Blue Raincoat, Who By The Fire and Chelsea Hotel. The latter being a song written just after the tragic death of the one and only Janice Joplin, who Cohen had a brief affair with, which recalled a specific liaison in the Chelsea Hotel. The lyrics and the delivery by the band captured the song perfectly and made a number of the audience chuckle around me when they sang “You were talking so brave and so sweet, giving me head on the unmade bed”. Brilliant.
Thanks to Ruby van Dorp, the lighting for the night was minimalistic and perfect. The silhouettes of the men in the band, all in hats, at times drew you to the back of the stage, almost glimpsing the ghost of the man himself.
Graham Fleury and Tony McMaster on sound have to get a nod here as well. The Q theatre was a perfect place to spotlight the true musicianship of the band and the incredible voices of both Clare Martin and Amy Skeates. The sound had warmth and feeling that flooded over the stage and wrapped the audience like a soft blanket.
The first half of the evening was finished off with three of my all-time favourites: Dance Me to the End of Love, First We Take Manhattan, and the timeless classic Hallelujah that I am sure brought a tear to the eye as Imperfect Offering captured the spirit of the song beautifully.
A quick break followed, allowing enough time for the punters to chat amongst themselves and get a top-up of their favourite tipple.
I spoke to a lovely young man sitting beside us who was the son (aged nine) of keyboardist Ben Fernandez and who had aspirations, just like his dad, to be on stage, with his favoured instrument being the clarinet.
The second half kicked off with Tower of Song, Ain't No Cure for Love (in gripping Americana rock fashion by Amy Skeates!), The Future and In My Secret Life. With such a back catalogue, I wondered how the band chose the songs they played. I’m guessing they were the ones that meant the most to them and also worked to tell the story of the man in music. I later discovered that the setlist is not the same when the band performs in other venues across Aotearoa.
Clare Martin delivered an outstanding version of Boogie Street, showing her true vocal range with a song that, to me, carried the whispers of music coming from an underground, dimly lit, smoke-filled bar in a back alley where only the cool people hang out.
Come Healing was specially dedicated to Peter's wife, Brenda and this song was another incredibly touching highlight of the show.
I’ve mentioned the musicianship of the band and they were the real winner on the night. These boys have talent and passion. The attention to detail and the harmonics that glided off the fingers of Pete Snow on his guitars and the bow of Nick Jones' violin were splendid. Each member added to the backdrop perfectly to combine with the singers at the front. At times they also showed off their own singing prowess, adding even more depth to the already deep pool of talent.
I remember the day that I heard Leonard Cohen had passed away and I felt the need to get his last recorded album You Want It Darker. Two tracks from this finished off the set with my favourite, the title track by Nigel Pizzini, highlighting a man that knows the light of day is about to be gone forever.
A surprise encore followed with I’m Your Man sung in true Cohen style and voice by Peter McMillan, who did a brilliant job, and the whole band converged to deliver You Got Me Singing finishing off the night.
A standing ovation followed by the sell-out crowd, reflecting exactly what I had been thinking during the whole concert.
Imperfect Offering delivered a show of exceptional quality and passion, tied together by stories and songs from one of the greatest poets and songwriters to ever grace our earth. I’m sure many of the audience went home and dusted off some old vinyl to find the nuggets on display and even the man himself would have given a tip of his hat and a sly smile of approval, which says it all.