Lauren Fox's Transcendent Mitchell/Cohen Tribute Show in a New Jersey Concert Hall Is a Total Trip
Cabaret Reviews and Commentary by Stephen Hanks
Well, it took me almost a year and a half and a long car ride deep into New Jersey to do it, but when last Saturday night (March 23) I finally got a chance to see and hear Lauren Fox's Joni Mitchell/Leonard Cohen Tribute Show ("The painter and the poet who mesmerized the world with their songs," as Fox put it), it was well worth the wait--and the trip. Actually, the show itself was a trip, as Fox not only embodied the look, spirit, and vocal timbre of Mitchell and her songs (if not completely reaching her soaring soprano), she also managed to channel the persona of the intense and mysterious machoness of Cohen simply by donning a fedora and maximizing her deeper register voice. It's not at all surprising that Fox not only received rave media reviews and the 2012 MAC Award for "Best Debut" for this show, but that a 750-seat theater like the recently-renovated, Art Deco-style Landis in Vineland, NJ, would want to bring this stunning, 16-song cabaret set and Fox's transcendent performance to their stage.
While the more intimate style show (with its many biographical and informational patter breaks) and its three-piece band (featuring the fabulous Musical Director/Arranger Jon Weber on piano, Ritt Henn on bass and Peter Calo on guitar) didn't ideally translate to a concert-size theater and stage, Fox's passionate storytelling and character portrayals, and especially her haunting vocals enveloped the hall. From the moment her ethereal voice, with it's sensitive vibrato, opened with Mitchell's "Michael From Mountains," the room became smaller, drawing in the audience as if the blonde, angelic Fox was a seductive sorceress. By the end of "Michael," she slowly reached for the hat, positioned it on a jaunty and mischievous angle, and segued into Cohen's "That's No Way to Say Goodbye."
What makes this "Love, Lust, Fear & Freedom" theme work beyond Fox's reverential and polished delivery of the songs, is that Mitchell and Cohen share lyrical and melodic sensibilities, no doubt partially due to their brief and intense 1967 love affair. While the first half of the show was totally lovely (Cohen's "Suzanne" and Mitchell's "Little Green" were particular standouts), it slowly built in momentum and really took off on "Chelsea Morning," the Mitchell song about one of Manhattan's most romantic neighborhoods, and inspired by her relationship with Cohen. Fox sang it with a palpable expression of her own love and wonder for New York. Then with just Henn's stirring bass as accompaniment, Fox conveyed Cohen's sexual persona on "Chelsea Hotel," and followed by capturing Mitchell's complete musical and personal essence on "River," one of her best performances of the night.
But all that seemed to pale in comparison to Fox's compelling rendition of Cohen's "I'm Your Man," during which she walked off the stage and sang the smoky, seductive ballad to a few women audience members in the front rows. In a New York City cabaret environment that scene must be downright erotic. At the point when Fox (as Cohen) sang: "If you want a lover/I'll do anything you ask me to/And if you want another kind of love/I'll wear a mask for you," I felt like switching genders. After that performance, the rest of the show was almost an anti-climax, but still incredibly stirring. Fox did an exceptional job on Mitchell's "All I Want," an up-tempo but rangy tune that is much more difficult to sing than it sounds, and followed with a section of "personal anthems," Cohen's haunting "Bird On The Wire" (with Fox again nailing Cohen's deep-throated singing style) and Mitchell's romantically wistful "Cactus Tree."
Ending the show on what are arguably each singer's most famous and oft-covered songs was an inspired decision and Fox's versions were inspiring. Her rendition of Cohen's sacred pop hymn, "Hallelujah," was spiritually engrossing from the first notes, and her more upbeat arrangement of Mitchell's classic "Both Sides Now" (sung in a vocal style similar to the deeper voice Joni had developed from decades of cigarette smoking) sent nostalgic chills up a Baby Boomer's spine. Speaking of being a Boomer, if there was one song that was conspicuous by its absence in this set it was the Mitchell version of "Woodstock." Fox sings the classic in her most recent highly-praised cabaret tribute to the music of the 1960s and '70s, Canyon Folkies, and it is clearly one of that show's highlights. But staying true to the story line of the Mitchell/Cohen conceit, Fox eschews the song in this show and that's probably a good thing. One can only take so much pleasure in a given cabaret show . . . or can they? Like I said, a trip, man. -END-