Perla Batalla – In The House of Cohen

The King is dead, long live the King – the passing of a monarch and his or her replacement is signed, sealed and delivered before the State funeral even takes place, but in music, tradition, blood lines, even talent, play no part in replacement. Indeed, one could argue very successfully, that you cannot replace Beethoven, Mozart, Pavarotti, Ginger Baker, Wes Montgomery, Sinatra, Bowie and so on. The list is growing and sadly, in the next decade or so, we will lose a plethora of brilliant 20th century musos, people such as Neil Diamond, Elton John, Paul Simon and Bob Dylan, although I half suspect Keith Richards will still be stabbing out riffs when my now teenage grandkids are my age!

For many of us across the world, these artists are the background to our life stories, we grew up with them, their music frames decades of now poignant memories. We’re all saddened when we read of the death of a favourite singer / muso, although often the news is softened by the fact that age has wearied them, they’ve either only done the occasional appearance performing old favourites in recent years, or haven’t performed for years and have dropped from public view.

But every now and then, the mould an artist produces new music right up till the Seventh Seal scenario, then the loss is palpable, even shocking, despite great age, which segues into Leonard Cohen.

Breaking almost every mould, he kept producing new material until the day he died, literally. What’s even more fascinating, is his voice got better with age, his new works were as lyrically profound as when he tentatively first put quavering reedy voice to vinyl. To put that in perspective, the only comparable talent,  his equal, (lyrically and musically), Bob Dylan, lost any semblance of a voice a decade or so ago and has resorted to interpreting old standards, sadly producing little if anything new in the last decade or so, that could be considered anywhere near the standard of his magnificent earlier decades of work.

Musically, Cohen collaborated with several people over the last twenty plus years – people such as Sharon Robinson and Patrick Leonard and by the time of his last two records – YOU WANT IT DARKER and the posthumous THANKS FOR THE DANCE, his song writing had become the reverse of the Elton John / Bernie Taupin relationship – Leonard supplied the lyrics and others supplied the melody.

For the millions of Cohen fans around the world, since his death in November 2016, the loss has been painful and whilst there are some very credible artists around the world doing Cohen covers – Nick Cave (Australia), Imperfect Offering (New Zealand), Rufus Wainwright and k.d.lang (Canada), Madeleine Peyroux (USA), Janerik Lundqvist (Sweden), Gerard Kettel, (Germany / Europe) and of course, Leonard’s son Adam – they aren’t Leonard. But for all that, we want the music to live and new generations to listen to and appreciate his work. So who best to keep the flame?

For male singers, the task is almost a no win situation. The natural vocal range for adult males is that of the baritone, as was Cohen, but trying to sound like him comes across as a cover act – often great to watch and listen to, but ultimately you’re not getting the real person – either the cover artist or Leonard.

Then we turn to female artists, which to some, may seem ludicrous. On the contrary. Cohen’s voice always benefited from and needed women’s voices, to add not just harmony, but that haunting beauty so often heard in his work. The women who have sung with him are justifiable legends in their own right – Jennifer Warne, Sharon Robinson, Perla Batalla and Julie Christenson, Michelle Phillips from the Mommas and Poppas, plus of course the beatific Webb Sisters.

Jennifer Warne and Sharon Robinson would appear the obvious choices, they each have incredibly beautiful voices and often ‘own’ the songs – Sharon certainly does – she wrote more than a few of them! Sharon is stunning on stage, her phrasing and understanding of the lyrics is profound. The Webb Sisters also have beautiful voices, but their English folk sound seems more suited to back – up than lead – that may change, as their voices mature with age and they continue to experiment with different genres. Then there’s Julie Christenson and Perla Batalla, Cohen’s back – up singers from the late 1980s through to the md 1990s. We last saw them sing together in the glorious 2005 Lian Lunson tribute film, I’M YOUR MAN. Nobody who saw that film could forget their emotion charged version of ANTHEM. Christenson’s musical path has moved away from Cohen and there seems little likelihood that she would once again immerse herself in Cohen’s work, Batalla however, has continued to actively interpret, sing, record and perform Cohen’s work, pausing during the immediate period after he passed away. Understandable, as they were close – Cohen was Godfather to her daughter. It’s Batalla’s voice that has often stopped me in my tracks, with her versions of Cohen’s songs.

Perhaps it’s her Mexican, Spanish influenced ancestry that gives her a wildness, a sensuality, a roughness and intensity, I don’t know, whatever it is, her version of BIRD ON THE WIRE has long been a killer and I had long wanted to see her live.

The opportunity came late this year, Perla had scheduled a series of her IN THE HOUSE OF COHEN concerts across Western Europe for late November / early December and we were scheduled be in Europe in early December (for Christmas and New Year). With the help of treasured close friends (Gery and Aad in Holland), we secured tickets for her concert in Antwerp on Friday 6th December.

De Roma, in Antwerp, was in many ways, the perfect setting for Perla’s concert – saved from destruction and restored by volunteers, there were parallels with Perla’s mission of support for Cohen’s work – the old world charm and art deco interior was an astoundingly good match for both Cohen’s majestic works and Batalla’s intoxicating Hispanic delivery.

She was backed by a three piece band – Marc Prat (bass), Lluis Cartes Ivern (keyboard, accordion and percussion) and Dimitris Jimmy Mahlis (oud), the setting was Cohenesque in its simplicity – background curtains and subtle lighting effects, plus dried ice smoke – curling above her shoulder like a highway perhaps?

The band was superb, dangerous territory after the stunning  perfection of Leonard Cohen’s band during his last years of touring and this was an audience of Cohen fanatics – an inferior, too loud a sound, or one mistake with one word in a lyric and social media would light up for weeks! But the band, Perla and her voice were stars.

Her voice is sumptuous, decadent, sexy, deep, haunting, soulful, tender and powerful, to pinch a line from Leonard Cohen, it’s almost like the blues. A sort of combination of Jennifer Warne and Janis Joplin, bloody magnificent, tinged with the Latin elements of fiery emotional intensity.

There were two sets of about 45 minutes each, with a decent half hour interval. I sensed this is a work in progress, it strikes me that Batalla has realised what she’s got and is no doubt refining and adding show by show. She performed a Mexican song of lament about Mexican men in the US missing their wives and families, it was very emotional for her, the band and the audience. She was crying and so were we. I immediately thought of DEPORTEE, she would break hearts singing that powerful song.

Perla has been recognised by the United Nations for her work on Social and Economic justice and her Mexican / Argentinian heritage and consequent musical influences, are very strong. Cohen, apart from the obvious pervading influence of Klezmer music, was himself heavily influenced by Spanish music and almost without fail, Cohen fans are classic social justice chardonnay socialists. I am certain Perla could add more Spanish / Mexican / Argentinian music and influences to this spectacular HOUSE OF COHEN.

She also intersperses the song list, with anecdotes about Cohen. Here, I thought she was being overly cautious – most of the anecdotes are in the public domain and well known to Cohen aficionados, consequently they didn’t come across as particularly personal, more a followed script. I suspect she’s being mindful and respectful of Cohen’s privacy, but I would suggest, with the publishing of books such as MATTERS OF VITAL INTEREST by Cohen’s life – long friend Eric Lerner, there is room for Perla to throw in more of her own experiences, without in any way disrespecting Cohen, or his memory. As an example, the time in 1988, when she, Julie Christenson and Cohen went with the film crew to Cohen’s house on Hydra, there would have been some interesting observations and when they came across Axel Jensen at the harbour, I’m sure Leonard would have said something later, over a wine or two. And there’s a thought – a bottle of Leonard’s favourite wine on stage, Perla could share a glass with the band and talk about it. As always, the little anecdotes intrigue and add validity.

Perla, my wife Ann and me

Back to the concert, Perla did all the Cohen songs the audience expected, superbly, then she tackled YOU WANT IT DARKER. Now I’m just a very amateur tinkerer on the piano, I have the sheet music to that song, it’s very difficult to interpret it in anything other than a monotone. This band and Perla, took the song and turned into a driving, almost Creole blues. It was exciting, it was brilliant. I’d been sitting there thinking, “Perla, you are bloody great!” Then they threw this into the mix and I knew. Perla Batalla is the Keeper of The Cohen Flame.

Buy her music and if by chance, she and her sublime band pass your way, go, just go to the concert, don’t miss it.

Greg Ross © 2019

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