words by Patty Riek
photos by Jon Bauer
November brings the Bay Area darker afternoons, cooler weather, rain (if we’re lucky), and the San Francisco Leonard Cohen Festival. Sponsored by Conspiracy of Beards, the festival highlights the rich music of Leonard Cohen and the myriad ways his work can be interpreted. The Beards, a male choir devoted to Cohen’s work, reimagine his songs in 4 and 5 part harmonies.
After Cohen died in 2016, the Beards, Britt Govea and Sylive Simmons put together a tribute concert. That night led Beard member Clay Eugene Smith to see the broad appeal of Cohen’s music. According to Smith, the goal of the 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.”
COVID infections have postponed the Conspiracy of Beards’ “opening night” festival performance until December 11.
Saturday, November 5, the festival featured a documentary of one Cohen songs: Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, a Journey, a Song with a Q & A session conducted by beardless, Conspiracy of Beards member, Bobby Coleman. Directors Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller explained that the genesis for the movie came from a friend who wondered if it were possible to make a documentary about a single song. Not long after that conversation, Goldfine realized Cohen’s “Hallelujah” was deep enough to merit its own cinematic exploration. With a nearly two hour running time (that felt shorter, the movie explores how “Hallelujah” is both inextricably bound to Leonard Cohen and has an independent life of its own. In addition to the history of the song, the film points out that many of us come to love “Hallelujah” and Leonard Cohen through another artist: Jeff Buckley, kd lang, John Cale, Brandi Carlile, Eric Church, Shrek/Rufus Wainwright.
Sunday, November 6, was an evening of music. Sylvie Simmons, author of I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen, played ukulele during her ten song set, shared stories about Leonard along with occasional verses of his poetry, and snippets of her book about him. Simmons was followed by The Crooked Jades – a modern folk band with an emphasis on strings: slide guitar, harp, stand up bass, guitars, banjo, and a harmonium. Sunday’s event reinforced that Cohen was a writer, singer, but above all, he was a seeker. His music chronicles his attempts to understand the complex nature of our world – the sacred, the profane, the sublime, the unknowable. That his music appeals to disparate groups is a testimony to its universality.
The San Francisco Leonard Cohen festival is my favorite Bay Area event. The festival leaves me listening to more Cohen, pondering “what I only know the limits of” and looking forward to the December 11 Conspiracy of Beards show.