I am not really much of a “joiner” and I don’t have many entertainment things about which I get passionate. Long ago, however, I decided that I would pick an artist and follow them closely. I chose Marc Cohn, whom you might remember from a 1991 hit “Walking in Memphis”, which still gets significant airplay, at least on the sort of stations I listen to. 🙂 Anyway, Cohn has continued to release albums at a gushing dribble (three in fifteen years) but also tours a lot and plays intimate, small venues.
Last night I rode NJ Transit up to NYC to catch his show at Zankel Hall, a small 600-person adjunct to Carnegie Hall.
First, the main play list:
- “Ghost Train”
- “Ghost of Charlie Christian”
- “Giving Up the Ghost”
- “Dance Back from the Grave”
- “Becoming Gold”
- “Listening to Levon”
- “Walking in Memphis”
- “Miles Away”
- “Blow On, Chilly Wind”*
- “Strangers in a Car”
- “Dig Down Deep”
followed by an encore:
- “Silver Thunderbird”
- “Paper Walls”
followed by a second micro-encore:
- “One Safe Place”
He only played the opening bars to “Blow On, Chilly Wind” (of which I’d never even heard before — indeed, Cohn seemed surprised when someone in the audience called it out). Mostly he used it to bridge to “Strangers in a Car”, which he wrote after waking from a rough dream. After penning the words, he was looking for the right music and decided to recycle the motif from “Blow On, Chilly Wind”.
This brings out the main reason I keep going to see Cohn whenever he’s within a practical distance. His shows are always excellent, chock full of humor and detail. He always seems to get a thrill from the crowd itself. I find it tough to imagine that he is still caught off guard by the enthusiastic response to “Walking in Memphis”… but it appears he is, every night. This is a guy who still hasn’t quite gotten his head around his supernova-like moment of fame. And I like that a lot.
A quick look at the playlist reveals that of the 14 songs he played, six of them have not yet been released. He did confirm that the recording is done for his oft-promised, oft-delayed next album, whose release date he would only give as “this fall… hopefully”. He said that his part (making the music) is done. Then he recounted a tale about Duke Ellington, who was apparently dropped one time by his label because (he was told) “You’re not selling enough records anymore.” To which the Duke replied, “It’s my job to make the records. It’s your job to sell them!” 🙂
Cohn also related the tale behind “Dance Back from the Grave”, which is a tribute to New Orleans after Katrina. It’s a heartwarming tale — he heard a poet reading a moving piece days after the disaster and he felt compelled to set the lines to music. Using his “connections in the news business” (he’s married to Elizabeth Vargas of ABC News), he tracked down the poet and arranged a co-writing of the song. All that being said, I’ve heard the song four times now and it’s consistently failed to grow on me. 🙁 It’s possible that Cohn isn’t compatible with other writers, even ones he admires.
That was the only flat patch in the evening, though. The opening song (“Ghost Train”) included Shane Fontayne’s patented liquid guitar work. It’d be a truly haunting song except for its location at the start of the set. If he ended with it, it’d be in everyone’s head for days (and probably lead to depression, but hey…)
He told us about his early days with Atlantic, when they’d just signed him for the first album. He flew out to LA to work with the producer he’d been assigned, someone who’d just produced a 20-million-sold album. (No names were named.) But when Cohn sat down to work out the album that eventually became Marc Cohn, they just didn’t click. The music coming out wasn’t anything like what he wanted. So, after just signing his first contract, this 29-year-old singer called up his label and said he couldn’t work with the producer — in essence, the whippersnapper fired the industry veteran. It was a nerve-wracking moment, apparently, and on the plane ride back to NYC, Cohn bolted out “Miles Away”, because he thought at that moment he’d lose the contract and sink back into obscurity. (Ironically, he then apologized for the mundane inspiration for the song, saying “I know a lot of you think it should mean something deeper” — ironic because the song itself has the lines “There’s always something we have to go through // that has some deeper meaning but // right now I just can’t say.”)
“Becoming Gold” is perhaps my favorite Cohn song of his whole repertoire, and it did not disappoint last night. Again, Fontayne captured the melancholy aura perfectly. Though Cohn doesn’t generally tour with a band, he does have regular opening acts. Tonight there was no opener, so he brought them on stage as his “band”. Sadly I didn’t catch either singer’s name (obviating, I suppose, the whole point of bringing them on stage) but the female vocalist, in particular, moulded her voice well to Fontayne’s guitar and really add richness to the refrains.
My other favorite song is “Dig Down Deep”, which he never fails to embellish somehow. Tonight, his recently-usual injection of Van Morrison (“no guru, no method, no teacher”) somehow didn’t end up at “I was only eleven years old when I heard that but I knew I wanted to ‘make love behind the stadium’.” Indeed at the Morrison bridge Cohn seemed about to lose the thread of the song, which I’ve never experienced at one of his shows. But in fact he rallied and went acoustic for a minute, then brought the band back in spectacularly. It was the sort of rendition to bring down the house and close out the show, and it did so nicely.
Of course in the game played by artists and fans, the first ending is never really an ending. So we had an encore set, with one song from his debut (“Silver Thunderbird”, in part in response to audience requests), one from his second (“Paper Walls”), and one from the coming album (“Witness”). An astute reader might notice that neither then nor earlier did he play anything from the most recent release Burning the Daze. Since the album’s release in 1998, I’ve noticed, Cohn has been playing less and less from it. I’m not sure if he finds it unsatisfactory or if he senses that his listeners did not respond to it. There are quite a number of good songs on it, in my opinion, and it’s a bit of a shame he doesn’t cover it.
On the other hand, I was underwhelmed by The Rainy Season when it came out. But after attending these concerts I’ve gained a whole new appreciation for it. Some of it is just growth and some of it is the better arrangements he pulls off live. Last night, he played “Paper Walls” as a sultry jazzy thing, with a fantastic bit of double bass viol played by someone who’s name I also did not catch. 🙁 The studio version of the song leaves me dry but it has always stirred me in concert.
Shockingly, despite many cries from the audience, we did not get any rendition of “True Companion” or “Perfect Love” — and I for one was just as glad. They’re workable songs but a bit cloying and bit heavy-handedly melodramatic. They’ve never been hits with me, even though apparently they are tops for many people, and I wasn’t sad to miss them.
Cohn ended the night with “One Safe Place”, which is just one of those haunting melodies that won’t let go. I expect this will be the closer on the new album because, so far, he’s always closed with a bittersweet yearning song, and this fits the bill more than any of the other new songs he showed off. (Of course, together, they’re only half an album so who knows what awaits in the other half.) It was a really nice way to close the show (for real).
Overall, another fantastic outing by Cohn, Fontayne, and the others. It certainly justified the late-night train ride and the walk through surprisingly brutal winds on Broadway.