Strolling out into a relaxed auditorium of cultural fringe-dwellers, Keith James wastes no time in getting everyone on the same page – making us feel safe by virtue of our marginal taste, and at home with a performer who shares it. ‘We’ve all been touched by the music of Leonard Cohen’ he says – it sounds like a sweeping assumption, but a quick scan of the Phoenix demographic this evening more or less confirms his point, as rows upon rows of middle-aged couples quietly nod in agreement, with me sitting at the back – the only one on my own.
As he slips into a soft, acoustic arrangement of Everybody Knows, there’s an immediate, spiritual union – between James and his audience; in and amongst the audience itself; and of course, between everyone in earshot and the man himself – Leonard Cohen. James treats Cohen’s music brilliantly, (sometimes subtly and sometimes more obviously) re-arranging the songs into acoustic arrangements that use Cohen’s infamous flamenco chops and saccharin fingerpicking technique. Being as this is, a style used more on the earlier records, the music all sounds older than it is; more traditional; folksier. Whatever your personal opinion, it makes for a more interesting tribute act, eschewing the easy game of the copyist for the more creatively stimulating act of the interpreter. For the ‘80s tracks, it works wonders, side-lining the gimmicky charm of the originals for something that feels all the more genuine. Elsewhere, the effect is purely alternative; often saddening. Chelsea Hotel #2, when he gets to it, has never sounded quite so sombre; the victory of Cohen’s original is inverted for something that sounds softer, and subsequently, more regretful.
This isn’t even James’ winning move, however. That commendation goes to his intimate conversation with the audience, before and after every song – analytical explanations of his personal favourites; anecdotes about performance; snippets of biography. James knows his audience; he comes out to meet them in the interval and he behaves sweetly with acute acknowledgement of their enthusiasm. He is in fact, so profoundly open and accessible a character, that his unexpected adherence to the rock ‘n’ roll cliché of the encore is jus that; a bit of unpretentious fun.
He played everything you could want, and then some. The ‘greatest hits’ staples (Famous Blue Raincoat, Suzanne, Hey That’s No Way…) all made an appearance, and he even gave us a reduced Hallelujah before the house lights came up. In addition, he reworked some of the Spanish poet Federico García Lorca’s work to his own flamenco tunes, a cute interval from the Cohen that served only to demonstrate his superb understanding of the musician. On that note, I was incredibly lucky myself, to have my favourite of Cohen’s songs revived: the Lorca-appropriating Take This Waltz, whose new acoustic version was simply stellar.
If you get the chance to see Keith James, do. Never before have I felt so humbled by a fellow appreciator of music – particularly difficult music, like Cohen’s. Besides, fan or otherwise – it’s quite something to see someone get an auditorium full of the emotionally disenfranchised singing along to So Long, Marianne.