Shaking off the post-Christmas blues

Tara Bradbury
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Neil Conway

"The song is the dress you put on the girl," Canadian poet and musician Leonard Cohen reportedly once told his son, Adam, about songwriting. It's not just about the music, he was explaining, but how it's presented.

Local musician Vicky Hynes hopes some of this province's best musicians will see fit to don new clothes of their own when performing in the 11th Feast of Cohen, which will run at the St. John's Arts and Culture Centre Dec. 28 and 29.

Headliners Chris Kirby, Mark Bragg, Lori Cooper, Neil Conway, and Katie Baggs, along with longtime Feast of Cohen performers such as Liz Solo, Colleen Power, Sean Panting, Des Walsh and Jenny Gear, were each chosen not because they have something about them that's particularly Cohen-esque, but because of their own uniqueness and creativity.

"You don't look for something that's so much Cohen-like as you do somebody who has the ability to take it on and present it in their own style or put their own spin on it," Hynes explained.

Feast of Cohen originally began as an informal way for Hynes and friends to shake off the post-Christmas blues; or as Hynes calls it, "the blah, blah, blahs."

"You're never fuller than the 27th of December," she said. "Any kind of break or hiatus from it is welcomed. It's the end of the year and you've got the austerity of the new year staring you in the face, and Cohen's writing is so introspective and always about the journey of the soul.

"With the release of his first LP, 'The Songs of Leonard Cohen' in December 1967, he had me," she continued about her reasons for putting together the show. "Cohen's hypnotic voice and simplistic guitar style made his delivery a haunting experience. Unforgettably dark, yet uplifting, all in the same breath."

While he may be known as the country's melancholy bard, Cohen's music represents, for Hynes, a feeling of a light at the end of a tunnel; of a sort of humanity that lets her know we're all in this together.

Held on Dec. 28, 2000 at the LSPU Hall, the first Feast of Cohen was jam-packed, with people sitting in the aisles to take it in. On Old Christmas Day, once the Hall had free space again, Hynes put the show on a second time, to another packed house.

Over the years, the show's run increased to four nights, and in 2007, eight. That same year, Hynes launched the "Feast of Cohen" CD, including recordings of live performances from the show's beginning.

In 2008, Cohen brought his tour to St. John's, with a three-night gig at Holy Heart Theatre. Hynes was there for two of the shows, and says it was a "mind-blowing experience."

"Seeing him live was too much. He was such a class act. The man was so impressive," she said. "I thought, 'Wouldn't it be fantastic if we could book Feast of Cohen at Holy Heart, on the very stage he had performed himself? That's what we did."

Hynes is presenting the show at the St. John's Arts and Culture Centre this year in an effort to increase audience comfort, she said.

Hynes, who likes to present a cast of both seasoned performers and up-and-coming locals in Feast of Cohen, asked Kirby last September to participate. Although the show has seen a ban on "Hallelujah," Cohen's widest-known song, in previous years, it'll be Kirby who performs it this year.

Having been covered by dozens of artists, from Bon Jovi to Willie Nelson, Kirby's under some definite pressure.

"It's definitely the Leonard Cohen song I know best and I've heard it done many ways, but I think the one I like best is the version by (Northern Irish singer/songwriter) Foy Vance. It's pretty stunning," Kirby said. "I'll inevitably put my own spin on the song, but I think my version is heavily influenced by his."

Kirby, a native of Norris Arm, is a multiple East Coast Music and MusicNL award nominee, most recently winning the 2011 MusicNL award for Jazz/Blues Artist of the Year for his record "Sounds Like Wednesday."

For Kirby, who said he's wanted to do Feast of Cohen since he first heard of it, it's not so much Cohen's music that gets him; it's his words.

"It's all about the lyrics, and that's really it. You can tell that he thinks over everything, and there's nothing there, not a single word, that doesn't need to be.

"I think tribute shows are really great when they celebrate art, and I think this will be two great nights of music and community. To steal a quote from (local musician) Rik Barron, there's lots of love around, and I want to be in on it."

Tickets for this year's Feast of Cohen - also featuring performances by Hynes as well as house band The Beautiful Lovers (Sandy Morris, Derek Pelley, Dave Panting, Geoff Panting and new addition Boomer Stamp) - are $50 and are on sale at the Arts and Culture Centre box office, by calling 729-3900 or 1-800-663-9449, or online at Twitter: @tara_bradbury

Organizations: Holy Heart Theatre, Bon Jovi

Geographic location: St. John's, Norris Arm

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