Herewith a tale of the Amsterdam meet-up from one bloke's perspective.
This first night (for us - we missed the Early Birds Thursday eve hook-up), was superbly organised, Willy, Wybe and Liesbeth have put in a fabulous effort to make this a great weekend for all of us.
The evening got off to a smooth, musical start with a really terrific Canadian Jazz band, the Mallory Chipman Quartet and their interpretations of Leonard's songs, with Bird on a Wire a real stand-out, Mallory has a superb jazz voice and her fellow musos, led by guitarist Brett Hansen, lay magic accompaniments.
We then broke for drinks before the official opening by Patrick Leonard, co-composer of several Leonard Cohen songs, on recent albums such as Popular Problems, he's worked with many famous musos in the past, including people such as Madonna, Elton John, Rod Stewart and even Pink Floyd. As well as playing wonderful keyboards, he gave us some very thoughtful insights into Leonard's composing in a Q&A session, letting us into a 'secret' that a new album he and Leonard are working on leans towards classical orchestral, with tonal variations, but as always with Leonard, it's a long project.
The Webb Sisters sent a short very friendly welcome video, then we were treated to a stunning concert preview by Sharon Robinson, as she embarks on her delayed concert tour of Europe. She was rightly given a standing ovation when she came on stage and when she left. It has to be said, she is looking as beautiful and elegant as the music she writes and sings. I was astounded at how she looks and sounds. On the long haul tours, her voice has always been superb, but she often seemed almost tired, rarely smiled, sort of quietly quiet in the background - concentrating I guess. Whether stepping into centre stage has unleashed a new confidence, I have no idea, but this was a lady in full control, dazzling in musical artisanship and grace - as we all know, a fabulous songwriter in her own right. She reminded me of America's wonderfully elegant First Lady, Michelle Obama.
Totally unexpectedly, we were then given a further very special treat -a preview of Leonard's new album, due for release in October. I don't know of any other artist (and record label), who would be trusting enough to let fans hear an album before its release,a truly amazing token of affection from Leonard to us all. The album is very different and, on first hearing far darker than I expected. In some ways, i was shocked, the feel borders on apocalyptic, perhaps reflecting the pessimism many of us quietly feel about our world today and a u-turn from the funky, laid back feel of Popular Problems. It was almost Gandalf warning of dark doom coming from Mordor. It will be fascinating to visit the album in depth sitting at home with the sound system crystal clear and studying the lyrics.
To finish off the night, Lord Mickey of One gave an impromptu prize giving with some mad questions, with Laura taking off the prize of the White Cohen Clogs. We decided to head for our apartment just after midnight, in order to survive the next few days, a great start, with some wonderful friends, new and old. We loved it!
Saturday dawns ... and guess what? Yep, we missed it (the dawn) and the City Walk, Wybe and Willy have organised some great extra activities, such as guided walks around the city and even Zen Experiences, but the late nights are taking their toll, so we are missing the morning events "Nevermind,' as the master intones. Besides, Gery and Aad met us for lunch and took us on a walk before the meet-up got underway.
The afternoon started off with a lovely nostalgic movie Wybe had put together of the various Leonard Cohen events over the last decade, then we all moved into the theatre for the Open Mic session. I'd originally planned to stage a comedy routine (as something different) during the Open Mike sessions, but the last few months of ill health and the need to keep working, meant I simply had had no time to put into rehearsing and I didn't think there was any need for a very amateur piano player / singer to appear. However in discussions with Henning, I agreed to tell an impromptue tale, but back to the real artists -
The lovely, multi talented Claudia Rucker kicked off the sessions with her versions of I Came So Far For Beauty and Ballad of a Runaway Horse, must admit,if Claudia ever invited me to sing harmony / with her on a song or two, I'd find time to rehearse - put that ego back in the bag!
Next up was Jonesy, Alan made his debut appearance on Hydra last year, proving to be a bloody good talent and did so once again today, with his versions of Dance Me to The End of Love and First We Take Manhattan. Henning then introduced Rita Garland a raven haired lady from Ireland and that got funny - she smiled at Henning and said, "Actually I'm from Portugal, but I've lived in Ireland for a number of years." Henning grinned and replied, "That's OK with us too." Rita, on guitar, performed two beautiful songs, Queen Victoria and Bird On The Wire.
Then it was Henning's turn and making a grand entrance, complete with a fetching orange bag, Liverpool Ken finally showed up to catch Henning in action. Henning's set included two less often performed songs, Samson in New Orleans and My Oh My, they were bloody good. He then introduced Eddy Massa, who played (piano) and sung a stunning, version of The Window. I wondered whether Eddy and Maarten were related, turns out it's his dad, fantastic.
Next up was another very talented lady, Lydia Mentink, she also had her lawyer friend Adam Diels, a classically trained guitarist accompanying her and at one stage, her eldest daughter Tessa Pit, came on stage to sing. They did a great three track gig - Anthem, Story of Isaac and Suzanne, but there was a twist! This class trio were into the groove, when all hell break loose! Well, perhaps not quite Hell, but it was apparently hot in the kitchen - a dishwasher had one of those smokey nights, the alarms went off, we were all ordered out and the fire brigade turned up. Lots of excitement. I must say, the trouble Willy and Wybe went to in providing extra little bits of entertainment like this, was really appreciated, but I think they should have told the bar staff first!
Back on stage and back into the groove, they finished their set and Jurgen Lohse came on stage in fine form, giving us two great interpretations of There is a War and I'm Your Man. He prefaced There is a War, saying he really believed there was / is, sadly, as I passed through all the security checks on the way home to Australia, I'd have to agree. it never ceases to amaze me what talent there is amongst the forum fans.
Then a wild colonial boy ... boy?? I'm kidding myself! ... took centre stage. Ann was horrified when I'd told her a couple of hours earlier that I had no idea what I'd talk about, but something would come up. It did, I told the story of how I was driving for Greyhound out across the desert (the Nullarbor) in early 1985, when I first heard Leonard's Various Positions on the Walkman and headphones. It remains for me one of the most astounding and emotional reactions I've ever experienced with any album. I was astounded to find it's still emotional for me, tears welled in my eyes relating the tale. I had a Cohen moment and couldn't go on, probably much to everyone's relief. All jokes aside, Various Positions, for me, is Leonard's pivotal album. I didn't realise that Aad had recorded it, link herewith: https://youtu.be/GSOjp05QEUw
I stumbled off the stage to meet my wine - no, hang on, I had it with me! And the most amazing guy took to the stage, Roylin Ld Picou. Originally from Nor'lins (New Orleans (as dear friends Oscar and Susie De Soto once taught me to say), he now lives in Canada. He gave an astounding off the cuff rap poem centred around Leonard's music. I think Kim Solez has recorded it, I hope so, I can't really describe except to say it was refreshing to hear a different take on things, for a while I thought we were in a southern Baptist revival meeting, as we all chanted Hallelujah. Brilliant mate, very clever and it seems he was grateful for my rambling monologue, telling me it set the scene perfectly for his act.
Next up was Sue Fairbrother, bringing the recent passing of Marianne to the fore with an excellent rendition of So Long Marianne, Jurgen Lohse stepped in to assist, accompanying Sue on guitar and vocals, they finished the set singing Heart with no Companion.
Then the Swede in the room, one Janerik Lundquist took to stage, singing Leonard's songs in Swedish, I found it fascinating, though I know not a word of Swedish - well - Volvo, (we own a Volvo!), Scania and Saab, but you know what I mean. Janerik, really came alive when Rita Garland and Lydia Mentink joined him on stage for Take This Waltz, and he could put his guitar down. Suddenly the singer / actor was in his element, he'd seemed almost shy playing guitar by himself. I don't think he'll mind my saying that - he told me later he far prefers playing with his band.
Janerik assumed his quiet persona off stage and Claudia Rucker came on to play piano and sing Hey That's No Way to Say Goodbye. I hadn't had the opportunity to hear Claudia play keyboards before, she's excellent. Finally it was time for a completely unrehearsed ending, everybody who had played or sung on stage was asked to come up and so we witnessed what I immediately named the Band of Lonesome Heroes Choir doing Sisters of Mercy. What an effort, what a time it was,a fun great way to end the Open Mic Session.
We broke for bread and wine ... oh alright Ann, beer too! Wylly and Wybe had organised a video of Meet-up highlights from 2002 through to 2015, but hunger and thirst saw us disgracefully miss this, apologies! However we were seated and ready for Francis Mus and his discussion on his recent book, The Demons of Leonard Cohen. It's a Dutch publication, so there was no point in me buying it, however it was an intelligent thoughtful analysis of Cohen's life and work, from the point of view of another poet (Francis). it was also interesting, in that he interspersed talking points with Cohen songs sung and played by Sophia Ammann. She was sheer quality in both guitar and voice, in particular, I really loved her crystal clear So Long Marianne, with the iconic photo of Marianne in that chair, in its way, this was the event's final farewell to our Lady of the Song.
Then came Avalanche Quartet.
Now I've seen a number of professional Leonard Cohen 'cover bands / groups over the years and until now Yaron Hallis and his Monsieur Camembert have appealed to me the most, (I now look forward very much to seeing Janerik's group in action - I've yet to play Janerik's CD but will later this morn). Suffice to say, Avalanche Quartet took things to an entirely different level, to write I was astounded, is to say the least. Quite simply they were brilliant. The group was put together by Henk Hofstede in 2007 and they regularly tour Europe. The group members, all on vocals, are Pim Kops on keyboards, bongos, tin whistles, anything really, a great muso! Marjolein van der Klauw, on guitar, Henk Hofstede, guitar and Arwen Linnemann, double bass. They were sheer class and if you will indulge me, with Marjolein and Arwen, in terms of voice and instrument ability, I did indeed feel I had come so far for beauty. Henk's voice is eerily reminiscent of a very early Leonard Cohen, I have a preference for Cohen's deeper 'God Voice' - that whiskey, wine and cigarette tone of burden and must admit to thinking I'd like to hear Janerik fronting the group, which is not to take away from Henk in any way, he had a lovely persona and gentle self deprecating humour, it's just a matter of personal taste. They gave an incredible long set, seemingly knowing every song in Leonard's book of love and loss, a musical tour de force!
Sunday morning, the last day of of our Amsterdam event and yep, you guessed it, we missed the morning! I am not sure if the morning missed us, but we were at Debaile in time for the Famous Blue Boat tour - clever Wybe and Willy, clever, as was the little plastic Famous Blue Raincoats in our bag of goodies. I thought I would photograph as many non-Ascetic Amsterdam attendees as possible and I quickly realised, more often than not, I didn't know the names of the lovely people I was taking snaps of, so, it's one of the reasons I've made this album public, so you can Tag yourself in a pic, or add a comment to a pic, saying, "This is so and so etc," I would welcome the help and I'll then add the names to the photos. Also if anybody has any photos of Ann and me together, we would be very grateful to have them. But back to boats.
The Famous Blue Boat Tour was indeed on a blue boat, two in fact, our group was so large. A couple of years back, Ann and I spent an entire day and some of the night, doing Amsterdam canal boat tours, but there is something so lovely about the canals, we couldn't wait to 'do it all again', and this time together with Cohenites from across the world. Although I must admit finding out the boat was a 'Dry Ship' was momentarily disconcerting! - Ann comforted me until the panic was gathered safely in. What a fabulous relaxed afternoon.
Back on dry land - hmm - is there such a thing on Amsterdam delta land? - there must be, we crossed and went under several bridges! With our dear friends, Gery and Aad, we propped at a bar across from the Hard Rock Cafe, where we were jointly fascinated by the tattoos on the back of the legs of one waitress - can I still say that - Waitress? Or should I say 'Waitperson?' Well, I guess there's no sense in being politically correct when you're photographing the naked legs of a young lady!
7.30pm rolled in, fed, watered - well - wined, yes Ann, beered, we ambled back to Debaile and the night came in. More wine - I do like the carafe system Debaile have for wine drinkers like me, saves going back to the bar every two minutes! We headed downstairs for the next programme event, The Prayers of Leonard Cohen: If It Be Your Will, presented by Doron Cohen, but we were taken aback by the change in room set-up, especially the small number of seats, immediately thinking, "Ah, this must have been a 'pre-booked' event" and of course we hadn't pre-booked it., so we did the only thing possible and retreated back to the bar, empty carafe in my hand. it seemed a number of others had thought the same thing.
By the third wine - some three minutes later, it suddenly occurred to me that the paucity of chairs in the room was due to the need for a dance floor and band stage later in the night and we decided to go back down, a decision I will be eternally grateful for.
Although a Sunday evening serious lecture ain't necessarily easy after several days and nights - well, mostly nights, but you know what I mean! - of food, wine and song, however for me, Doron's presentation was a highlight of the event. As I wrote earlier, Cohen's Various Positions is my all time favourite Cohen album. The songs astound me and leave me breathless to this day, the hair still raises on my arms, the lyrics inevitably appear to almost absorb through my skin into the very heart. I am not religious, though brought up as an Anglican, but I classify myself as a Relapsed Agnostic (a wonderful term I stole from the fantastic Irish entertainer Dave Allen) - as Leonard says, "I love the country but I can't stand the scene."
Doron's discussion dove deep into the fascinating mix of Judaism and Christianity in Leonard's work and he painstakingly analysed certain Cohen's lyrics, matching them with biblical text. I was rivited - without my noticing, Ann took a pic of me sitting on the floor (no, I have no idea how I got back up again!) wrapped in what Doron was saying. He finished with Leonard's If It Be Your Will and for the second time in two days, I was drawn back to that moment so many years ago, when seemingly the voice of God thundered through my earphones, the song playing on my Walkman, as I sped across the vast Australian outback.
Lecture over, but I held the thought. It was party time, dance and Sixties music with Huub, Henk, Harrie and Herman taking to the stage, but my mind was still reeling from Doron's address, I need to reflect and to talk with others. We went back upstairs, finding others were of a similar mindset. The bar staff at Debaile were once again delightfully obliging, opening up the lounge for us to sit and talk and laugh about it all again.
Jurgen sat at a table with his guitar and within minutes, Cohenites were sitting, standing,even leaning in darkened doorways, singing along. Janerik joined in, the wine flowed and it was like being at Nicholas's Cafe Roloi on Hydra in the wee small hours.
All the while, hovering over our heads, was the thought of closing time - the end of festivities was drawing near, time to give deserved thanks to Willy, Wybe and Liesbeth. Back down the stairs to the dance room where the H Team were breaking sound barriers, giving Closing Time a distinct hard rock feel.
The three of them took to stage, thanking everyone for attending, making us all laugh, explaining that A. They needed a rest, B. They had no idea how no idea how their marriage had survived the stress of the last two years of setting it all up, C. Without Liesbeth's help, it all would have been impossible!
They then called the lovely Eva Martonyi up on stage, as the new Keeper of the Key, announcing to us all that Eva would be hosting the next event, (2017) in Budapest. We had talked with Eva about the Hungarian event earlier in the day on the boat trip, I was ecstatic, only a week or two before, Ann and I had been discussing when we would go to Budapest and now it's all been decided for me! Wonderful, can't wait!
Finally, it was given to some Irish cove - an Albert Noonan, some of you may know of this famous video producer? - to give our grateful thanks to Willy and Wybe for a truly marvellous weekend.
A few more songs, some last goodbyes and it was time to go back, go back to the world. Thank you to everyone for the friendship, fun and camaraderie, thank you as always to Jarkko, then there's the man himself, without whose music and lyrics, none of this would be, finally thanks to my wife Ann for loving, while sometimes cringing at the activities of her lunatic husband.
Postscript: I've just put the event sticker on the window of our car and Ann tells me she's booked accommodation on Hydra for next year!