Review: Marc Cohn at the St. George Theater

Marc Cohn with Toby Lightman
St. George Theater, Staten Island, NY
Thursday 2008 August 21

This is another in my ongoing series of reviews of Marc Cohn shows. See this earlier one and this one as well for comparison.

The St. George is a beautiful venue, an old vaudeville theater (I assume) which has been either renovated or maintained lovingly in its original state. Ornate and glitzy, it nonetheless provided excellent sound for an intimate concert. The opener was a bluesy singer/songwriter named Toby Lightman, who has been featured (apparently) on the Home Shopping Network as well as singing the opening for NASCAR on Fox. Unfortunately I don’t know any of Ms. Lightman’s work, so I can’t review it in depth. She seemed to have a nice range, though, and her songs aren’t bad at all. She does appear to be a bit nervous on a stage by herself.

After Ms. Lightman’s forty-minute set and a small break, Marc Cohn came on stage with his current touring band: Shane Fontayne on guitar; Joe Bobadillo (?) on drums; and John Ossman on bass. The set was high-energy and went on for more than an hour and a half, including two encores. The playlist is below the fold.

  1. Live Out the String : A nice rendition, though somewhat marred by some equipment issues Mr. Fontayne had throughout the song.
  2. Ghost Train : Mr. Cohn commented on how he has had to resort to bringing along his original, aging keyboard on tours now, as modern keyboards apparently can’t reproduce the signature sound of this track from his first album (which he humorously refers to as “my best-of”). Between this number and the next he introduced Mr. Fontayne (who had fully resolved whatever plagued him during the first song and was his usual, amazing, liquid self on this tune).
  3. Perfect Love : A good version though I have to say, again, that I an not in love with this song. It is uncharacteristically cloying for Marc Cohn.
  4. The Calling (Charlie Christian’s Tune): Appropriately haunting. After this song, Mr. Cohn introduced Joe Bobadillo on the drums and then called Ms. Lightman out to perform a couple of numbers with him.
  5. Dance Back From the Grave: I will admit that I was not a fan of this song when I first heard it. I was put off a little by its rough-hewn lyrics and distorted guitar. Then I experienced a moment of fridge brilliance and realized how a propos these features are in a song about a city that’s been drowned. Anyway, in concert, the song packs quite an emotional wallop. Mr. Cohn also did some audio wizardry by employing two mics, one of which (used for the main verses) was driven to distortion.
  6. 29 Ways : Another song from the first album, and another song I didn’t particularly like that nonetheless stands out in concert. For me, the success of a concert hinges entirely on whether the performer enjoys their work. I mean, if the singer can’t be bothered liking what he’s playing, why should I? Mr. Cohn never fails to convey his love of his work. But this song was over-the-top out-and-out fun, and that came through nicely. Its topic is a little bit goofy and that content-free quality allowed Mr. Cohn and the band to really cut loose. Also, Ms. Lightman’s contribution to this song was much stronger and integral than on “Dance Back From the Grave”. After this, she left the stage for a bit and Mr. Cohn introduced John Ossman on bass.
  7. Listening to Levon: Mr. Cohn, introducing this song, described it as the eternal conflict of a 16 year old boy falling in love with a 16 year old girl and in love with music. It’s a sweet, funny little song (one of the best from Join the Parade, in my opinion) and it again brings across how essential Mr. Cohn’s music is to his entire life. Also, during the bridge (before “It’d serve me right”), he riffed a little and gave us a verse of “The Weight” by The Band, which includes drummer/singer Levon Helm, who is of course eponymous for the song.
  8. Rainy Season: Every time I hear a concert rendition of the title song from Mr. Cohn’s second album, I am amazed how he has turned a so-so studio track into a lush and evocative cry of love and pain. Here the band really kicked in, tossing the sad-but-energetic motiffs from one to the other. Every once in a while a song can really paint an “aural picture” and this one really feels like a rainy evening. It’s also a unique blend of optimism and fatalism — the singer is clearly in love, clearly wants to make it work, clearly is going to try … and just as clearly, expects it all to smash up anyway. Something about that noble struggle even when faith is gone, tugs at me. During the extended fade-out, Mr. Cohn mixed in a verse or two from “Walking Man”, a song I’ve heard him perform only the once — which is regrettable, because it too was an awesome song.
  9. Walking in Memphis: As he has done in the past few concerts I’ve seen, Mr. Cohn begins by sitting at the piano, fingering some keys idly, and telling a story of his early career. In this case, he told how he’d given LA a try, returned to New York burnt out, and had gone on a bit of a walkabout trying to figure out what he wanted from life. This took him to Memphis, Tennessee. (At this point, the crowd understood which song was coming and broke into applause, leading him to joke, “Nah, I’m not going to play that. You’ve heard it all so many times, I thought you would just want the story.”) The most moving and important experience was his encounter with Muriel Davis Wilkins. After a night of jamming with Mr. Cohn, she told him to go home, get his head on right, and write the songs he wanted to sing. Most of the eponymous Marc Cohn followed. A few months after, he returned to the Hollywood Cafe and played the songs for Ms. Wilkins. She said that they were all right but the best was “the one about me”. “Walking in Memphis” at a Marc Cohn concert is a little bit partaking of the divine, as everyone in the audience sings along. In a way that I don’t know how to describe, something flows between Marc and the audience then, something shared beyond a catchy refrain and some clever lyrics. Something about the emotion he invested in it, and the time it was released, and something more, approaches the transcendent. I’ve been to a dozen or so Marc Cohn concerts and that song has never been greeted with less than reverence by the audience … even when the audience was a drunken Atlantic City crowd that had been comped into the casino play space.
  10. Miles Away: Yet another song that is enhanced in concert. For whatever reason this song has always resonated with me and the production last night was exemplary.

That marked the end of the set. Of course, Mr. Cohn almost always comes back for more, so we had an encore set:

  1. Silver Thunderbird: The respect the audience always shows for this song indicates that Mr. Cohn captured something unspoken but universal about how we view our fathers. It’s poignant and sweet and one of the reasons that first album evokes such fan loyalty.
  2. Paper Walls: He introduced this by saying that after you tour for long enough, you have to come up with a “road song” and this was his. He then strummed through the opening bars a couple of times and then admitted, in singsong, that he couldn’t remember the opening lines and we would have to wait for it to come around to him. Then he did recover the lyrics and launched into this tale of temptation and descent. This was another song where the band really cut loose and made it clear that they just love performing. The guitar work was impressive and the drums inspired.
  3. Let Me Be Your Witness: This was the first song I’d heard off the long-rumored “new album” (Join the Parade) and it remains my favorite. Toby Lightman came back on stage for this one, to outstanding effect. “Witness” is a culmination song, something that just seems appropriate at a moment when you stand back and look at your life. I guess I’m also a sucker for the defiance in it, for the sheer doggedness of the singer that he will stand by (whomever) at their darkest moment when everyone is arrayed against them.

“Let Me Be Your Witness” is tailor-made to be the song that ushers out an evening. (Actually, Mr. Cohn has a number of these.) The soft beginning and the ending swell can carry you out into the night satisfied. But last night, we got a second encore (an encore encore?):

  1. True Companion: After “Walking in Memphis”, this is the song Marc Cohn “has” to play. Too many fans have co-opted it for their weddings to allow it to slip away. I find that a little disappointing, because — much like “Perfect Love” — this is a bit cloying and heavy-handed. It feels like it was written to be co-opted into wedding playlists, the way the latest pop star’s Christmas album cynically gloms onto holiday spirit. I will admit that I’ve softened a little bit for it now that I’m in a relationship wherein the sentiment can be imagined. Still, it is simply never a high point of a Marc Cohn concert for me.
  2. One Safe Place: This is a different logical “closer” song. It perhaps perfectly encapsulates the Marc Cohn experience: Gravelly voice plus tight lyrics plus that indefinable, indelible quiet yearning. It is a song that will carry you out into the night, and it did for us.

So, overall, another fantastic night. So far Mr. Cohn has never failed to render a moving, rousing, eminently enjoyable show. My personal thanks to my friend Angela Haberle, who came along and provided the ride that got me from Princeton to Staten Island and back with a minimum of fuss.

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