2008 is over, Hallelujah

My story about my musical year starts with a short term obsession about a song.
The CBC broadcast a story about the popularity of Leonard Cohen’s song Hallelujah in Britain on the National (TV news) on the Friday night before Christmas. The CBC was interested because the writer was a Canadian. The story was that two different versions of the song were topping the British charts in the week before Christmas. For the last few years, some kind of Christmas themed piece has topped the charts. There is no Christmas list as such, and the charts continue to track the popularity of modern popular music in Britain, on sales.
The only connection between Hallelujah and Christmas is that the word Hallelujah is used in some Christian prayers and songs, including some Christmas songs and hymns. There is a Hallelujah Chorus in Handel’s Messiah, which has become a Christmas concert favorite for choral performances. The oratorio is more of an Easter piece, and the Hallelujah chorus alludes to passages in the Apocalypse (Revelations as English speaking Protestants call it) rather than to King David, King Solomon, or Samson and Delilah. I found one artist, Allison Crowe, who had recorded the song on a Christmas album.
I listened to clips of the Alexandra Burke version that topped the British charts. I listened to several versions, including Cohen’s, John Cale’s, Jeff Buckley’s, and Crowe’s. Wikipedia has a clip of a cover by John Cale. I found a cover – vaguely techo – by Bono on a Cohen tribute album. I thought Allison Crowe did well, but Jeff Buckley’s version was better, perhaps the best. That young man was a great performer. Jeff Buckley understood what Cohen was writing about when he said that the song was dedicated to the orgasm, which one of the few things that provokes serious (as opposed to profane and vulgar) religious exclamations, and the closest thing to mystical ecstasy that people can credibly claim to have had.
Cohen sings the song as a song of memory and regret, sung by lovers who have exhausted the physical potential of their relationship without finding a way to stay in love. When Cohen sings it, you can smell the Scotch and cigarettes, and visualize the books by Camus and Sartre on the bedside table. Cohen celebrates and preserves the memory of the sexual relationship within the context of rationalizing the fact that the emotional intensity of relationship has changed, and that the ecstasy was temporary.
I heard a Victoria group, the Gruff, sing their cover at Spinnaker’s Brewpub last spring, and then a few more times at other venues in Victoria and at the Mission Folk Festival in July. For some reason, their version is less worldly and more optimistic and anticipatory.
My year in music was pretty quiet. I listened to Cohen, and some performers who covered him. I bought some old classic Fairport Convention. The high point of my year was travelling to Vancouver to hear the Oysterband at St. James Hall – the Rogue Folk Club’s principal venue . They were touring to promote their newest album. Their concert was amazing, and the new album is pretty good.
I wasn’t happy about the Vancouver Island Festival in Comox-Courtenay this year. It was hot, and the camping is crowded, leaving the hardy party folk drinking and carousing amid the families and people trying to sleep. I recall a couple of good workshops about calypso and Indian music, but the festival was disappointing. Michael Wrycraft was one of the hosts on the main stage. He was trying to pay a tribute to the great musician Oliver Schroer, who had died a few days earlier. The crowd was indifferent, which struck me as very sad. Folk fans like to fancy themselves as true patrons of the arts, bonded with the artists by love of the genre, but they are just fussy consumers. They know what they like, and they like what they have been groomed to listen to. The best that I can say about them is that they have stretched their tastes beyond mass culture to be listening to folk at all. I will stay away from negativity.
The Mission Folk Festival was small, quiet and well programmed. I enjoyed the Gruff, and Moira Smiley and Voco, Rani Arbo and Daisy Mayhem, and Nathan Rogers. I have caught Rogers at different stages in his career. His stage manner is respectful but a little manic. He performs fine covers of his father’s songs – some imitative of the canonical performances, others innovative. He has experimented with a song with throat singing. He caught me with a good cover of Into White, a song by Cat Stevens. I could have done without the all the extra stage time lavished on a Tibetan singing nun.
Over the rest of the year, I began to listen to Billy Bragg more carefully. I also have appreciated Richard Shindell, Richard Thompson, Joan Osborne. I went to Sheryl Crow’s concert at the Memorial Arena in Victoria with some of my friends from my Dragon Boat team. I know most of the songs, the production overwhelmed the music, and I realized that I didn’t have a clue about the way women from 15 to 50 felt about her songs.
I have been tending to read with the TV on, tuned to news, or soccer, or a bad movie, and not listening to music. That has started to change. So ends the year.