Travelling Light: A Celebration of Leonard Cohen @ Queensland Poetry Festival 2017 Review

Published in Arts News  
Ben Ely Ben Ely Image © Kylie Thompson
Song and poetry are remarkably similar beasts, when you get right down to the bones of them. They both rely on rhythm, tone, and the flow of carefully crafted phrasing to take listeners (or readers) along on a journey of emotional discovery.

So it’s really no surprise to know that some of our greatest, most beloved lyricists are also poets.

Leonard Cohen is arguably the most well-known of the dual-genre writers, with lyrics that would work seamlessly at a spoken word event, and poems that could be set to music and sung from the heavens without losing any of their power. The man had a gift for language, one that’s been covered and expanded upon for decades by a global community of fans and music lovers. Even if you’ve never heard Leonard Cohen performing his own work, covers of his iconic songs are probably nestled in your playlists somewhere.

Cohen quote
Image © Kylie Thompson

This is the first Queensland Poetry Festival (QPF) since Cohen’s death, and festival organisers Anne-Marie Te Whiu and David Stavanger knew they wanted to commemorate the impact Cohen’s life – and death – has had upon the poetic community.

Like QPF, Cohen’s work was often deeply political, fearlessly exploring a range of topics generally avoided within polite conversation, and more than willing to call out injustice and demand a better, fairer world. QPF’s ‘Travelling Light’ was a showcase of Cohen’s work and a tribute to a poet lost far too soon from a world in desperate need of his wit, wisdom, and ability to find beauty in the wreckage.

Architects of Sound
The Architects Of Sound - Image © Kylie Thompson

The opening night of QPF saw the Judith Wright Centre putting on the Ritz for ‘Travelling Light’ and the talent on show left guests reeling. The Architects Of Sound brought evocative theatre to the proceedings, with lead vocalist Amaro Mayfair’s breathy, jazz-hewn stylings and ability to balance absurdity, sex appeal and a staggeringly good show complementing Sutro’s more awkwardly straight-laced stage persona.

Ben Ely (of Regurgitator fame) and Ben Salter both set a cracking tone for the evening, gravelly voices and familiar guitar refrains leaving the lyrics to speak for themselves. And with a set from Hexham’s new album ‘Close And Leaving’ closing out the night, there were earworms aplenty for a crowd journeying the highs and lows of Cohen’s creative life.

Pascalle Burton
Pascalle Burton - Image © Kylie Thompson

But perhaps it was the readings that staggered the audience most. After all, we all know Cohen’s music, but it’s far too easy to forget that he was a poet and novelist in his own right. Pascalle Burton and Ian McBryde left the crowds in silent awe at their ability to take stories rife with meaning and bring them to colourful life.

And yet, in terms of audience favourites, the star of the night was local First Nations poet, Samuel Wagan Watson. Breaking from the tradition of recreating Cohen’s iconic works, Wagan Watson instead paused to reflect upon the impact of Cohen’s artistry, not just in his own creative life, but on the acts of creativity so many of us take for granted.

Samuel Wagan Watson
Samuel Wagan Watson - Image © Kylie Thompson

Heart on his sleeve, earnest and almost shy, Wagan Watson brought home the reminder of the loss while still bringing Cohen’s trademark tarnished, cynical optimism and humour to the fore. For many in the crowd, there could be no more fitting tribute to the man who gave us that cold and broken ‘Hallelujah’.


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