Tuesday, September 4, 2012

'Hannah Cohen supported by Leif Vollebekk' at Bush Hall, 4th September 2012

On paper Hannah Cohen sounds remarkably easy to dismiss.  I didn't know much about her before this concert, and what I found out from her Wikipedia page didn't exactly fill me with hope.  Lines like: "Hannah left home as a teenager to work as a model, soon finding herself in New York and becoming over the next few years something of a muse to the city's art scene." do not exactly fill me with confidence.  The history of models turned musicians is not exactly a consistent story of success.  Then again, maybe I shouldn't be so quick to judge; consider Nico, Grace Jones and Agyness Deyn.

I'd never been to Bush Hall before, and it was a pleasant surprise how nice it was.  I noted that the ticket said that the concert was seated, so I figured it'd be an auditorium of some kind.  The room was a large and ornate ex-ballroom with tables and seats dotted around the front.  This ballroom setting, coupled with the tabled seating made the whole affair infinitely classier than the grimy sweatboxes I usually go to.  The contemplative atmosphere was so pervasive that I think the musicians were unsure as to whether we were actually enjoying ourselves at all; save for applause everyone was quiet as a mouse during both sets.  But then this was a night of chilled out acoustic music, you're not going to be getting up and moshing here.

Leif Vollebeck
Supporting Cohen was Leif Vollebekk, a singer/songwriter from Montreal, Canada.  First impressions are very Dylanesque, he's wearing blue jeans, a white shirt, a harmonica holder and playing an acoustic guitar.  Even though his songs are folky and relaxed Vollebeck is an incredibly animated performer, twisting his body and face around the microphone and guitar as he sings.  His songs are mainly stripped down, heartfelt acoustic numbers.  This 'wear your heart on your sleeve' attitude works very well on stage, we are left in no doubt of his sincerity and the personal nature of his lyrics.  As he sings he contorts his face into various passionate (and occasionally pretty weird lookin') expressions, his eyes squeezed shut in concentration.  

Midway through the set I realised, he reminded me a hell of a lot of Jeff Buckley.  The same kinds of swooping vocals and unselfconscious lyrical flourishes pepper his music.  This sort of thing only really works if the audience gets the impression that it's spontaneous, but it's hard to imagine Vollebekk is faking any of this.   A highlight of his set was 'Don't Go to Klaksvik', a song which for me summarises the dreamy, heartfelt nature of his music.

Aside from his music, Vollebeck seems like a nice and friendly, although slightly nervous guy.  He broke a string at the end of his first song, and repeatedly apologised to the audience as he fixed it.  We responded with a sea of blank and silent faces, which seemed to unnerve him slightly, he doublechecked if we were having a good time.  I felt a bit guilty for this, but then, as I said, the way they'd laid Bush Hall out seemed to encourage quiet appreciation.  Silent though I remained, I thought his performance was great, occasionally reaching a the kind of lovely crescendo that sends shivers down your back.

Hannah Cohen and Josh Kaufman
So, to the main event.  Pretty much as soon as Hannah Cohen took the stage all of my misgivings completely melted away.  She's modest, friendly and seems genuinely happy to be on stage.  With her hair flowing over her shoulders and a white flowing dress she looks innocent and somewhat virginal.  The dress in particular emphasises a certain kind of vulnerability by making it look like she's about to undergo some kind of baptism.

Damn you grey haired man.
An emotional and physical vulnerability fills her music.  The majority of the songs are gossamer-light, ephemeral stuff, with the centrepiece always Cohen's voice.  She sings in a soft, emotional croon, and it initially seems maybe too understated, but upon listening to the wistful lyrics of heartbreak and misery it seems somehow appropriate.  All of her songs seem fairly similar, and although occasionally there is an electronic backing track she never strays too far from the same sombre feel.  This lack of variety could be a point of criticism, but Cohen is so good at what she does that it becomes irrelevant.  As the concert goes on, her presence on stage becomes ever more magnetic, effortlessly holding our attention with her dreamy, hypnotic music.

Accompanying her on stage is Josh Kaufman, a beardy and unkempt looking guy who's a nice contrast to her purity and minimalism.  He plays backing guitar and other instruments on most songs.  Initially I assumed that as Cohen is apparently relatively recently self taught on guitar that he'd be picking up a lot of the complicated musical slack.  Happily their on-stage partnership seems to be that of equals.  I never for a moment felt like he was compensating for any faults of hers. 

It was a wonderful performance, and I've been successfully converted into a fan of Hannah Cohen.  The only criticism I can possibly make is a reflection on myself; watching someone who left home to become a successful model, who then became a published photographer in her own right before dabbling in music and eventually building herself up into a musician this good makes ME feel like I need to work harder in life and achieve more.

I can only hope that Cohen sticks with music, watching her in a fairly sparsely populated and obscure room in Shepherd's Bush feels like the kind of opportunity that will soon be impossible if she becomes more successful.  A wonderful night, and two absolutely lovely performances.

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