As a soundtrack for Lian Lunson's film Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man, Hal Willner's choices from the two overseas evenings of Came So Far for Beauty: An Evening of Leonard Cohen Songs recorded in Brighton and Sydney -- the original was in Brooklyn -- are exceptionally well done. The rest of this program, however, is utterly fine, beautiful, raw, and immediate. It helps when you've got great material, an arranger like Steven Bernstein, and bands that include Charles Burnham, Michael Blake, Kenny Wollesen, Briggan Krauss, Chris Spedding, Marc Anthony Thompson, Smokey Hormel, Don Falzone, and Maxim Moston. Hal Wilner picked the tunes after producing the Brooklyn show. And when you have Julie Christensen and Perla Batalla -- longtime Cohen bandmembers -- singing backing vocals on most every tune and taking their own leads as well, the performances move to another level and you have a feast. The multi-generational approach features young guns like Jarvis Cocker, Beth Orton, Teddy Thompson, the Handsome Family, and Martha and Rufus Wainwright along with first-generation Cohen countrywomen the McGarrigle Sisters (one of whom is mother to Rufus and Martha) and middle-years admirers like Nick Cave and Antony, not to mention Battala and Christensen.
It begins with Martha's wonderfully overwrought "Tower of Song." She catches the drama and the wryness in it and just pours it all out. Her brother does an acceptable job of "Chelsea Hotel No. 2" in his trademark nasally wheeze and foppish manner, but his version of "Everybody Knows" comes off with more authority. Nick Cave's lounge lizard sneer on "I'm Your Man" contains all the humor, false confidence, and desperate need of the original. The McGarrigles (with Martha) cover "Winter Lady"; it's light, airy, and gorgeously done, as is Martha's other solo, "The Traitor." Beth Orton is simple, from the gut, and completely raw and effective on "Sisters of Mercy." Listeners get Jarvis Cocker and the Handsome Family doing straight reads of "I Can't Forget" and "Famous Blue Raincoat," respectively -- complete with attempts at imitating Cohen's low rumble. Cocker is truly great, while the Handsome Family are more than acceptable. Batalla's "Bird on a Wire" lends the song an entirely new dimension with its slipstream country backdrop and Cajun overtones, courtesy of a fine accordion solo. Cave, Christensen, and Batalla collaborate for a stunningly real midtempo "Suzanne" that will make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. Batalla and Christensen's reading of "Anthem" is tender to the point of heartbreak. Teddy Thompson is, judging by his two recorded outings and his performances of "Tonight Will Be Fine" and "The Future" here, on the way to becoming a truly great singer. But it is Antony's performance of "If It Be Your Will" that is the showstopper here. With Bernstein's arrangement creating a gospel feel, Antony's white-hot vocal expressionism and humility tear the surface off every emotion and word in the song for the purpose of finding what they're really made of. If this one doesn't just blow you away, you have sawdust instead of blood running in your veins. It almost feels like the voice of God coming through the grain of his own.
The final cut, by perennial spotlight hogs U2 -- of course, they weren't part of the festival -- was the exception and was done in a burlesque club. Their version of "Tower of Song" is the last thing on the program and it belongs there; it's a collaboration between them, Cohen, and Anjani Thomas. Their overblown, over-arranged, and over-produced take on the tune almost steals the author's tough lyrical meaning and buries it under dross instrumental crap that sounds like an outtake from one of their albums -- they never could cover other people's material well. Cohen and Anjani sound great on it, though. They keep Bono chained up until the very last verse, where he almost wrecks the tune with his undisciplined vamp on the melody, and the seemingly inauthentic (over)emotional ache in his delivery. Other than this blemish, which keeps I'm Your Man from being perfect, this is a fine and fitting tribute to an artist whose gifts are so massive that they cannot even be spoken of adequately.