Paying rent in the tower of song

Chico musicians come out for a beautiful celebration of Leonard Cohen

Stevie Cook (guitar) and Mark Wilpolt (autoharp) playing Cohen at the Blue Room.

Stevie Cook (guitar) and Mark Wilpolt (autoharp) playing Cohen at the Blue Room.

Photo by Steve Scarborough

A Night of Leonard Cohen Music, Saturday, May 20, Blue Room Theatre

It’s amazing what Chico’s diverse, multigenerational musical community can summon when it comes to creating collaborative projects that allow a sharing and celebration of many talents. The sold-out Night of Leonard Cohen Music (Saturday, May 20), produced at the Blue Room Theatre by longtime Chico musician Mark McKinnon, was an impressive showcase that illuminated the late master songwriter’s craft through an entertaining spectrum of performance and vocal styles. One couldn’t help but feel the man himself would have approved of the show as a manifestation of his legacy.

Joshua Hegg, the omnipresent and apparently omniscient keyboardist who plays in local jazz troupe Bogg and anchors the popular Uncle Dad’s Art Collective, led off the evening gently with improvisational themes reminiscent of Keith Jarrett’s synthesis of classical and jazz tropes. This worked well in setting up Trish Berkow’s silky version of Cohen’s “Smokey Life.” And the sentiment of the lines—So set your restless heart at ease/Take a lesson from these Autumn leaves/They waste no time waiting for the snow … It’s light enough, light enough/to let it go—summed up the elegiac feeling of many of Cohen’s somehow celebratory, Buddhistic examinations of melancholy, loss, longing and acceptance.

Singer Katrina Rodriguez and friends—including mandolinist Mark Wilpolt, percussionist Jerry Morano, and Bob Littell on harmonica—brought one of Cohen’s most iconic and apocalyptic lyrics to crowd-pleasing life with their rendition of “First We Take Manhattan.” Rodriguez’ spirited delivery of the lyrics captured the inherent mysterious drama: I’m guided by a signal in the heavens/I’m guided by this birthmark on my skin/I’m guided by the beauty of our weapons/First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin. The musicians took the song’s ominous pulse and dramatic melody into interesting territory with tasty filigrees of mandolin notes and a harmonica solo from Littell that brought a rush of spontaneous applause.

The most theatrical performance of the evening came from Gordy Ohliger, who followed “You Got Me Singing” (backed by Morano’s brushed cabeza, Hegg’s piano, and beautifully laced with violin by Vera Marie Bridges) with a recitation of “Magic is Afoot,” adapted from a passage in Cohen’s 1966 novel, Beautiful Losers. The two pieces complemented each other perfectly, as the downbeat optimism of lines like, You got me singing/Ever since the river died/You got me thinking/Of the places we could hide/You got me singing/Even though the world is gone/You got me thinking/I’d like to carry on, became reflected in the sentiment of, God is alive, magic is afoot. Delivered in the mode of a barefoot beatnik prophet, the words and performance brought a moment of contemplative silence to the seated crowd.

On the lighter side (if Cohen’s music has a lighter side), Laurie Dana’s performance of “My Secret Life” included bringing a toddler out of the front row to dance as Littell played an inspired harmonica solo.

Additionally, McKinnon and Rodriguez teamed up for a fine, spooky duet of “A Thousand Kisses Deep” and an upbeat “Tower of Song.” But Peter Berkow provided the show-biz highlight of the event with some jaunty banter, a tribute to Cohen’s style (wearing a fedora and a black jacket trimmed in crimson), and a true showman’s approach to livening up the crowd.

All things considered at this moving benefit for the community theater, Cohen’s black humor and iron faith at the heart of his masterpiece, “Hallelujah,” never rang so true: There’s a blaze of light in every word\It doesn’t matter which you heard/The holy or the broken hallelujah.