andrewcferguson

writer, performer, musician, wine drinker

Deconstructing the Commander: or, the Isaac Brutal Way with a Cohen Cover

So I’ve been reading a bit about the latest Bob Dylan reissue juggernaut: previously-unreleased material from the vaults, covering Dylan’s astonishing mid-Sixties period when, in just fourteen months, he produced Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited, and Blonde on Blonde, three of his best (if not in fact his best, to many) albums, all in between touring, baiting journalists, and upsetting a lot of folkies. And they say amphetamine’s all bad. (It is, kids. Seriously. Drugs are bad. You shouldn’t do drugs).

For a mere $600, you can get one of a limited run of 5000 of the Collector’s  (they had the taste not to call it the Obsessive’s) Edition featuring 379 tracks across 18 CDs, which Uncut points out actually takes longer to listen to than Dylan spent recording the whole of Bringing It All Back Home.

Mid-range Dylan nut? Ask your long-suffering girlfriend for the £105, 6CD, Deluxe Edition, containing only 122 tracks, with lots of outtakes, ‘hilarious studio chat,’ and the like, for Christmas. It might be your last Christmas together.

Or, finally, you can shell fourteen quid for 2 CDs, The Best of the Cutting Edge.

Or, even more finally, I’ve got a better idea: spend the money on new bands, and tune in to Ralph’s Radio Show on Monday nights, as, on our recent trip to that esteemed source of fine music to promote the Cohen gig, I noted that he’d got The Best Of… so I’m trusting Ralph to sift through the 36 tracks to come up with any hitherto undiscovered Holy Grails of His Bobness.

Of course, I understand why Dylan fans (of whom I still consider myself a fellow traveller) might want to do it. Maybe not so much for the 20 takes of Like A Rolling Stone, when they eventually settled on Take 4: but when there’s the chance that there might be an undiscovered treasure like ‘Blind Willie McTell,’ you could put up with a lot of one-verse jams and polka-style takes of ‘Queen Jane Approximately.’ I just made that last one up, by the way, but thinking about it, it sounds pretty good.

(‘Blind Willie McTell,’ for the uninitiated, is one of Dylan’s finest moments, recorded in 1984 for the otherwise undistinguished Infidels and left off it inexplicably: a single take of Dylan on piano and Mark Knopfler on 12-string acoustic, utterly beautiful in its simplicity, and only released after the old curmudgeon got fed up of it being bootlegged relentlessly by fans who recognised its true worth.)

Anyway. I’ve been thinking about different versions of songs a lot recently, as we rehearse for A Third Tip of the Hat to Leonard Cohen, tomorrow night (Friday). I’m performing with the acoustic, provisional wing of Isaac Brutal and the Trailer Trash Express: me and Mr Brutal himself on guitar, Graham on mandolin, and Graham’s lad Calum on cajon.

When I first mooted our participation in the gig to Mark, he agreed, after a slight pause, but made it clear that I was leading on this one. I came to the realisation that this included not just singing lead, but choosing the songs – something I was semi-qualified to do, at best, given my ownership of only two Cohen albums. However, there had always been a couple of songs on those that I had mentally marked down as possible covers, in the (as I then thought) unlikely event I’d be doing Leonard Cohen covers any time soon. Then I got in tow with avowed Cohen-ite Norman Lamont, and the idea of the gig began to take shape (we did toy with a Bobster, Lenny and Paul Simon night, but decided something called Cohen Zimmerman Simon might be misinterpreted, and anyway, it sounded too much like a firm of New York attorneys for comfort).

To me, cover versions fall roughly into three categories. Firstly, the tribute band version, where the whole idea is to reproduce the original as faithfully as possible, often in exchange for largish amounts of cash in provincial halls up and down the country: not a genre to be sneered at completely, given the difficulty of pulling off that facsimile sound.

Secondly, there’s what I might call the faithful-as-possible version, where the cover sticks to the ethos of the original, but instead of having the Royal Philarmonic, a Welsh male voice choir and Sly and Robbie for a rhythm section, your man has a battered acoustic guitar and a mate who plays spoons to reproduce it.

Lastly, there’s the cover version that sets off in a new direction altogether, again sometimes for reasons of necessity.

Isaac Brutal’s contribution on Friday will probably be somewhere between two and three on that spectrum. Both songs, ‘Amen,’ and ‘Going Home,’ feature on Cohen’s second from latest album, Old Ideas. Both of them, it’s fair to say, appealed to me more for their clever, mordant wordplay than the music, as so much of Lenny’s work does: I mean, who can resist a lyric like ‘Tell me again when the angels are singing/and the laws of Remorse are restored’? Not me.

On the CD, though, the two songs lope along gently, some sort of electric piano providing the main backing to ‘Going Home,’ and a plonking banjo in the case of ‘Amen.’ Even if it were my way, it’s not the Isaac Brutal way to lope along, so it was clear something had to be done.

I arrived at our first rehearsal with fairly firm ideas of how to give ‘Amen’ a bit of pep. Underneath the plonking, the basic chord structure of the song had a Spanish feel – stuck into A minor, the verse resolved with an E – and, with the addition of extra guitar, mandolin and cajon, it began to take shape quite quickly. Once the basic rhthym was established, it was a case of deciding how many ‘amens’ we put in where, and in what manner. For some odd reason the four amen version Lenny uses didn’t work for me, but three did. Except where it’s six… you’ll get the gist tomorrow night if you’re coming.

‘Going Home’ was more problematic. For starters, it had obviously been composed on keyboard, so the chords looked, to say the least, unpromising for a guitar-based version (I used to faithfully listen to the record and work out the chords for myself, but I’ve got lazy over the last few years and relied on the internet, with its variable versions in terms of playability: A/C, anyone?)

Secondly, Leonard, consummate poet that he is, had thrown in two verses of different lengths, and counterintuitive chord changes. Our first rehearsal session spend a long time plodding through that, trying to make it sound something like acceptable. The pace was deadly though. Eventually, I struck up the opening chords at a jaunty angle, Calum came in right on top of it on the cajon, and it started to work for us. Still tricksy, though.

I’ll not lie: I’m slightly more keyed up about this gig than usual. It’s a long time since I fronted a band in this way, and singing and playing at the same time isn’t as easy as all these singy-and-playey types make it look. It’s the first time the four of us have played together as a unit. However, we’re going to give it a hell of a go. Even without the Divine Webb sisters. Or a Welsh male voice choir, for that matter.

With Mark and Graham backing me, who needs them?

 

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