He's our man

Gavin Simms
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And local fans have been feasting on the music of Leonard Cohen for a decade

It's the end of November 1999. Vicky Hynes has just released her first album, and she's working the bar at The Ship Inn. The holidays are around the corner, but she's hardly excited - Christmas is not what it was.

The songstress is dreading the dull days after the gifts have been ripped open and everything's left to go flat.

Vicky Hynes is the force behind the annual Feast of Cohen in St. John's. "I find that there's a real connection between doing this show around Christmastime. I love the rehearsing, I love the camaraderie," she says. Photo by Gavin Simms/Special to The Te

It's the end of November 1999. Vicky Hynes has just released her first album, and she's working the bar at The Ship Inn. The holidays are around the corner, but she's hardly excited - Christmas is not what it was.

The songstress is dreading the dull days after the gifts have been ripped open and everything's left to go flat.

She longs for her teenage years when the Panting Brothers played their annual Boxing Day show downtown. By the 26th she'd have had it up to her teeth with family functions, so Hynes and her young adult friends would beat it down over the hill to take in the show and have some fun.

"Something's got to be done," she tells herself. "Someone's got to save Christmas."

So, down at the bar, she says to the boys, "We should get together and do a great big Leonard Cohen concert!"

Then she hauls out a big yellow envelope and starts scribbling the names of artists she could get to play: Mike Wade, Sandy Morris, Sean Panting, Colleen Power, and on and on until the paper is awash in blue ink.

She wrangles them up, books the LSPU Hall for a night, sells every seat, and calls it "A Feast of Cohen."

Ten years later

Who would have thought that one little tribute show could turn into a Christmas tradition? Not Vicky Hynes.

To her it was a fluke. Because of her love for Cohen's music, she selfishly wanted something to look forward to after Christmas Day. She wasn't aware there were so many others who felt the same way.

"We had people bitchin' and complainin' they couldn't get tickets. 'Can't you do it another night?' they'd come up to me and say."

Each year more shows were added to accommodate demand.

What was once put off at the LSPU Hall has since graduated to the Holy Heart of Mary Theatre. The years at the Hall still make for fond memories, though.

"It's such a small space, you could see their lips moving and there were people in the audience that knew every single word," Hynes recalls.

Now that the show has grown, the planning takes more than a few weeks. It's become a huge part of her life, but still she's happy to make it happen.

"I love it," Hynes says. "It's just so exciting. It's a lot of stress worrying about all the details or if I'll sell enough tickets to pay the performers and pay all the bills involved, but I love it."

People come up to her all the time and say, "Don't ever stop the Feast of Cohen, 'cause its such a big part of my Christmas holiday. It's a part of my vacation from Christmas."

As long as the tickets keep selling, she can't see it coming to an end. Hynes aims to please, whether she's behind a piano or organizing things behind the scenes.

"Entertainment's my bag," Hynes says simply.

"I come from a very musical family. This is very natural for me. I like to go with a gut feeling of what people like and give them that; make a real connection with them."

She's a huge Cohen fan all year round, but Hynes believes the Canadian poet's material is perfect at Christmas - especially that dark period after Boxing Day.

"You often hear his music described as razor blade music, but really it's an exploration of the depths of the dark and the most horrible corners of one's soul that you get to journey. But there's always a bit of light at the end of the tunnel."

Given that Hynes has a copy of just about everything Cohen ever recorded, the thought that she's introducing his songbook to younger generations makes her proud.

The stage

The show features 14 performers doing two Cohen songs each.

Hynes calls the artists in September, to get them thinking about their song choices. She "takes the spoils" left behind to perform herself.

From there it's a matter of working it all out with house band The Beautiful Losers: Sandy Morris, Dave and Geoff Panting, George Morgan and Kelly Russell.

"They're the old fit for me," Hynes says.

There's always an eclectic bunch of musicians to work with.

"Liz Solo is an alternative artist, Jim Fidler is more of a folk artist and producer, Jill Porter is a rocker, Sean Panting is the same, Colleen Power is alternative and a French songstress as well, Brian Hennessey's written books and plays, Des Walsh is more of a poet for me, Jenny Gear is very unique and a great Cohen fan."

Hynes says it's a privilege to have local celebrities Amelia Curran, Mick Davis of The Novaks, Cherie Pyne and Tim Baker of Hey Rosetta! on the bill as well.

She always saves author/performer Joel Hynes for last.

"He's the guy that brings the house down. I put him at the end of the show every year because he's so intense. In his heart of hearts I think he'd like to be a songwriter like Cohen."

With zero sponsorship or funding, "A Feast of Cohen" always manages to keep going.

Hynes released a live compilation from the shows a few years ago. Next year they plan to record another one. Someday she hopes to produce a DVD of the show.

And while she can't confirm the rumour, Hynes has heard that Cohen himself might come back to St. John's in the new year.

Until then, you can feast on the next best thing Dec. 27-29 at Holy Heart Theatre on Bonaventure Avenue.

For ticket information, contact the Holy Heart Theatre box office at 579-4424.

Organizations: The Ship Inn, Panting Brothers, Mary Theatre Holy Heart Theatre

Geographic location: Bonaventure Avenue

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