Strangers in the night
Robert Forster on Roberta Flack & Leonard Cohen live
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First there was First Take, one of the best debut albums of all time. It was recorded by Roberta Flack in 1969 for Atlantic Records, produced by Joel Dorn, with a backing trio that included jazz giant Ron Carter on bass. Flack was 32 when she cut it, coming late to a recording career after years as a music and English teacher, a piano accompanist to other singers, and finally stints on her own in nightclubs – the most famous being Mr Henry’s in Washington, DC, where in the mid-to-late ‘60s she knocked together a career-shaping set of songs that ranged across pop, jazz, gospel and folk. First Take is where an eclectic repertoire, a cool and soaring voice, and a funky, minimal group met under the direction of a producer who knew when to bring in the strings and the brass, and when to leave Flack alone to impress with her singing, piano playing and song selection.
The songs were the key, for Flack has not been able to find or gather a similarly audacious and satisfying collection of material since. Whether she picked the eyes out of the rumoured 42 songs she auditioned with, or conservatism subsequently crept into her song choices, First Take is an album she has never bettered, a place where lightning struck once. It includes the hit ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’, but on an album this strong it can only earn a place deep in side two. The opening side is the showcase, a four-song knockout starting with Gene McDaniels’ funky and uncompromising ‘Compared to What’ (“Nobody gives us rhyme or reason / Have one doubt, they call it treason”); before dropping into the gorgeous, aching roll of ‘Angelitos Negroes’, which Flack sings in Spanish; followed by the start of a long relationship with the music of Donny Hathaway, on his ‘Our Ages or Our Hearts’; and finishing with the mind-blowing intensity of ‘I Told Jesus’, the song and side ending appropriately enough with a pause and a crash. This is draining music, and it can make turning the record over a brave decision. If you do, the first song you’ll hear is Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye’; it’s the pop song on the album and the only number that comes in under five minutes. This is a record where Leonard Cohen is the light relief.
Cohen was in Brisbane the night before Flack in early February this year, performing at the same venue, and he sang ‘Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye’ with the affection and attention to detail that he brought to everything he did that evening. I wondered if he’d mention Flack’s version or her performing the next night, but he didn’t, and she didn’t perform the song. Cohen and Flack were big ships passing close over the nights, and the difference between their performances and their relationship to their best-known work, much of which was forged in the fire of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, is intriguing. Flack got her commercial breakthrough when jazz-buff Clint Eastwood, while listening to a West Coast station, heard the album version of ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’, almost three years after the album’s release, and put it on the soundtrack to his directorial debut, Play Misty for Me. It helped break the song. ‘Killing Me Softly with His Song’ and ‘Feel Like Making Love’ followed; ‘Where Is the Love?’ was a smash sung with Donny Hathaway. By now, Flack’s albums were slicker and selling, but in the late ‘70s earthy balladry was on the way out and her career cooled. As for Leonard Cohen, it has been a strange ride: albums appearing at irregular intervals, underground-hero status remaining intact, unexpected bankruptcy throwing him back on the road for the first time in almost 16 years, while ‘Hallelujah’, written in the early ‘80s, is a worldwide hit in the hands of young pretenders. For Cohen, now 74, the future is looking very bright.
Roberta Flack walks on wearing black and a gold sparkling jacket, and – with Derek Hughes, one of her two male back-up singers – opens with ‘Where Is the Love?’. It is a welcoming first move, coming out with a hit; and there is further reassurance when she sits down at the piano and does a funky version of ‘Sweet Georgia Brown’. Her voice is classy and warm, and her bubbly chat is engaging. But alarm bells start ringing one song later when, during Goffin and King’s ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?’ (a song covered beautifully on Flack’s third album, Quiet Fire), she stops singing at the end of the verse and asks the audience to perform the chorus. Whispered voices flutter around, people having paid up to $150 for a ticket now finding themselves carrying the fourth number of the night. Next, we get a song from the movie Tootsie – “you know, the one with Dustin Hoffman in drag” – and then she’s off. “It really is interval,” a surprised woman beside me says to her partner as the lights come up. Out in the foyer the mood is subdued: no one is going to riot, but there is little buzz.
She is back, bang on the hour, presumably knowing that the second half of the show has to be more substantial than the first. ‘Tonight, I Celebrate My Love’, a big romantic ballad, is good and her voice, though noticeably shaky on some of the high notes, is gorgeous in the middle range. ‘Feel Like Makin’ Love’ is also sung well, but by now it is obvious the songs aren’t building to anything; the scattered approach to her back catalogue and the showbiz-y between-song patter is not carrying the audience along. Warm applause breaks out at the first notes of ‘Killing Me Softly with His Song’: this and ‘The First Time Ever’ are what the audience has come to hear. The best way for an artist to treat their greatest hits, it seems, is to play it straight and be enthusiastic. On ‘Killing Me Softly’ Flack does neither; the performance is lacklustre, with the back-up vocalists carrying the chorus’s high notes; a bossa-nova coda only manages to reduce the applause for this ‘70s classic to a low rumble. In keeping with the unpredictability of the night, Flack follows up with the show’s highlight. There are 189 recorded Beatles songs, she tells us, and she has recorded what feels like half of them for a still-to-be-completed album for Sony. She then plays ‘Here Comes the Sun’, and it’s great. For the first time tonight she is hunched over the piano and concentrating, just as she is on the cover of First Take.
Thirty-five minutes into the second set and suddenly we are into an encore, with the band vamping and the two back-up singers swinging their arms to get the crowd to cheer louder for Flack to come back on stage. It is embarrassing. She sits down at the piano for – what else? – ‘The First Time Ever’, done better and with more heart than ‘Killing Me Softly’, though we get the shorter version of the song. Before the final number and second encore (more desperate hand-waving from the singers), she tells us she has sinus problems, and it’s a hint of an apology. She ends with the Pretenders’ ‘I’ll Stand By You’, which has more audience participation, and then she’s gone. With the comings and goings, band introductions, between-song chat and paucity of singing, it doesn’t require much calculation to see that while Flack has got by, she has not been generous.
The contrast with Leonard Cohen’s show was stark. Cohen cared, and it showed in every decision he made, starting with his band. They looked hand-picked and happy to be there. Flack tacked on the Queensland Orchestra (and other state orchestras as she travelled Australia) to her six-piece group, and while not being awkward there was no noticeable empathy between band and orchestra, either musically or in spirit. Cohen was all spirit; part of the shine may have come from not having toured for so many years, but he let his talent infuse the show, and the crowd knew it. He carried 9000 people and made a vast stadium feel like a bohemian club. He did it by isolating the essence of what he does, presenting it with graciousness and seriousness and delicious cap-in-hand self-deprecation. Flack leant on show business, which can be an unsteady rail, especially when you’re giving off the vibe that you’re rushing and don’t really want to be there. It catches up with you, so you end up in the middle of songs yelling out, “Come on, Brisbane!” – something Leonard Cohen didn’t have to do. He just smiled and bowed, aware that he had a closet full of great songs and was going to do justice to them all over three hours. There was fire in his eyes when he sang ‘Suzanne’, pain and commitment when called for in other songs, and there were no short cuts; just an artist treating his back catalogue not as hits and misses but as signposts and reportage on the stations of life. That he can triumphantly return at 74 and do this may be the reason for the spring in his step as he leapt on and off the stage.
Roberta Flack could do this, too. Twenty songs, her at the piano, bass and drums, a horn player maybe, no tricks but a program she believed in, and we’d follow her up the mountain as well. With any luck she’ll finish that Beatles album and it will be a big success. The clever arrangement of ‘Here Comes the Sun’ shows she hasn’t lost the ability to take a song ingrained in popular consciousness and spin it into a new dimension. Then, she might come back to live performance enthused and focused, which would be a joy, because the show she did this time was no way to say goodbye.
Robert Forster is a singer-songwriter and co-founder of The Go-Betweens. His collection of music criticism, The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll, was published in 2009.