Concert Review: “The Gospel According to Leonard Cohen”



(Perla Batalla and Julie Christensen)


UCLA Live concert

Royce Hall, UCLA

Los Angeles

Feb. 24, 2007


In last year’s film “Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man,” two of his former back-up singers, Perla Batalla and Julie Christensen, performed one the absolute highlights of a tribute concert, a slow-burning, yearningly hopeful version of the ballad “Anthem.”

For such relative unknowns to make such a powerful contribution to a show that already featured the likes of Nick Cave, Beth Orton and Rufus Wainwright proved that Cohen knows a good back-up singer as well as he knows an enduring melody or a tellingly erotic lyric with religious overtones.

Batalla, thus, had the authority and chops to organize the Feb. 24 “Gospel According to Leonard Cohen” tribute concert for UCLA Live concert series. (The Sydney, Australia, show featured in “I’m Your Man” was produced by Hal Willner.) Christensen, her erstwhile ally, was there to lend voice and support. So, too, were some estimable guests, if not quite the star power of the Sydney show – Jackson Browne, Dave Alvin, Michael McDonald, Jill Sobule among them.

Her musical director, Steve Weisberg, handled arrangements with a band that included a string quartet, guitarist Bill Frisell and, for a few numbers, Don Was on electric bass. (Cohen, himself, was not present.) This time, when the two women took center stage late in the program to sing “Anthem,” holding hands for support at the end, people were expecting something sublime. And they got it.

One surprise, well-received by the sold-out concert hall, was the overall Spanish element to the show. It worked well with Cohen, perhaps because the longing inherent in his songs instantly translates into such a “romantic” language. The Los Angeles-born Batalla’s heritage is Spanish; her father was a Mexican singer and disc jockey.

Martha Gonzalez, of the L.A. band Quetzal, sang “Sisters of Mercy” in Spanish nicely, ending with a somewhat disconcerting but appealing burst of dancing atop a wooden platform. Javier Colis, a young and charismatic Spanish rocker making his first U.S. appearance, writhed and pranced on stage like Nick Cave or Jarvis Cocker during an electric, raucous version of “El Carnicero” (“The Butcher”).

The more familiar names, singing in English, also did well by Cohen. Browne, introduced by a starstruck Batalla who couldn’t get over his still-youthful looks and hairstyle, took awhile to find the urgency in “Waiting for the Miracle.” But he ended it locked into a swaying, minor-key folk-rock groove reminiscent of his own best songs.

Alvin, shorn of guitar but wearing a sport coat and red ascot (“spiffy,” he announced) recited “Democracy” like an impassioned politician on the stump while the band played a funky, bluesy arrangement.

Soul veteran Howard Tate, masterly using his truly golden voice’s falsetto whoops and cries, brought so much dedication to “Tower of Song” that he earned an extended, cheering ovation. He also turned it into act of bearing witness, particularly striking given his own comeback after decades of obscurity.

Another surprise was Sobule, whose edgy, tough-spirited take on “First We Take Manhattan”– backed by rock arrangement – incorporated enough caustic, angry bitterness to make it seem out of Brecht/Weill.

If Batalla made a blunder, it was in sentimentally asking a student choir from her old middle school to accompany an inappropriately dressed-down McDonald on an impassioned show-closing version of “Hallelujah.” There are some very confessional, adult (and sexually frank) lines, and it was weird seeing a bunch of kids in blue-and-gold gowns providing “hallelujahs” as McDonald sang them. But if they were confused by the words, they didn’t show it. Maybe they were familiar with the song from “Shrek.”

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