words by Patty Riek
photos by Jon Bauer
Conspiracy of Beards and Graham Patzner were supposed to open the San Francisco Leonard Cohen Festival in early November. While COVID postponed this performance, Patzner and the Beards sang to a full audience on Sunday, December 11, 2022, at The Lost Church in San Francisco.
According to Beard member, and organizer of the festival, Clay Eugene Smith, the goal of the San Francisco Leonard Cohen Festival is to “encourage artists to bend Leonard’s work into different shapes and interpret his intentions through their own lenses, to breathe, or conspire, with the open palette of poetry, music, and insight that Cohen gifted the world.”
While previous festival artists significantly “bent” Cohen’s work, Graham Patzner offered a contemporary reworking in the tradition of early Leonard Cohen. Much like Cohen, singer and songwriter Patzner performed (mostly) solo playing either guitar or keyboards. Patzner opted for many of Cohen’s less famous songs including “Darkness,” “The Traitor,” and “Last Year’s Man.” Patzer introduced “Last Year’s Man” saying, “this one is heavy.” Patzner’s choices speak to so much in our world today that is, indeed, heavy.
When Patzner presented “The Future,” the Beards, from various parts of the venue, chimed in on the “repent” refrain. That the choir started joining in on the refrain slowly with a few voices and growing with each repetition suggested, rather than being planned, the choir spontaneously jumped into song at this musically appropriate moment.
Wrapping up the set, the Beards joined Patzner on stage for “First We Take Manhattan” offering a wonderful melange of Patzner’s vocals and the Beards’ harmonies.
After a short intermission, the Beards slowly made their way to the stage by winding through the audience ever so delicately singing bits of “Hallelujah” which gave way to “Suzanne” – evoking a gentle whisper in a lover’s ear.
After the choir coalesced at the front of the venue, to the right of the stage, they sang “Tonight Will Be Fine.” Cohen’s lyrics remind listeners, “That tonight/will be fine/Will be fine, will be fine, will be fine/For a while.”
Moving to the stage, the Beards delighted listeners with Cohen favorites: “If It Be Your Will,” “Marianne, “Everybody Knows,” “Who by Fire,” “Sisters of Mercy.”
Long time Beards director, Daryl Henline, alluded to the Beards working on a new iteration of “Hallelujah” before performing their current version.
Henline later offered high praise to his fellow choir members as “rhapsody to work with” them and the “life changing spiritual philosophy” found in Cohen’s music. Like many choirs, the Beards balance the tension of the group’s harmonies and each individual voice working its way into the whole. The suits and the fedoras create a general sense of uniformity, but the frequent solos illustrate that all groups are composed of discrete souls.
At one point, Patzner said, “He’s got a lot of lyrics, this guy.” True. Those lyrics, Cohen’s music, and the presentation of both by Conspiracy of Beards and Graham Patzner offer listeners the chance to both acknowledge the suffering in life, but also the chance to find methods of “healing of the body/…healing of the mind…/…healing of the spirit.”
For the final song of the night, Patzer played guitar as the Beards sang “Dance Me to the End of Love.” With the audience clapping along, the performers filed out. Like so many paradoxes in Cohen’s work, the song is both a love song and a tale about the Holocaust. That such a dichotomy can leave an audience feeling aware of the pain of the world, yet simultaneously hopeful is a testament to Cohen’s talents and the inspired reworking of Conspiracy of Beards and Graham Patzner.