Music transcends borders, even oceans. What moves a listener in Havana can also stir the soul of a Kentuckian. Making the experience possible in a very intimate, up-close way are the efforts of the couple you see up above, Lee Carroll and Connie Milligan, out and about in Havana, scouting for great music to bring to Lexington. In an interview from WEKU’s Eastern Standard, UnderMain’s Tom Martin talks with these founders of the non-profit Green Room Exchange and shares samples of the music they’re bringing to Lexington.
Xiamarra and Axel Laugert performing with Jonathan Ragonese conducting a Lexington ensemble at Tee Dee’s
Torgbui Gideon Alorwoyie leading Thunder God drumming at his God Mother’s funeral – Photo provided by Green Room Exchange
Gidi Agbeko – Image from the album Ayeko
UnderMain is an Eastern Standard content partner, providing arts and culture reporting and interviews to the public radio magazine. If you enjoy this kind of thing, help us sustain it by supporting WEKU during this week’s Spring 2019 Pledge Drive. Click here to help make great public radio happen.
When JoAnna James begins to sing, you tend to hold your breath. She captures the attention of the crowd as she whispers her voice into motion, and soon she has drawn the room into her craft. Her voice carries you along as she powers into the chorus, and when she hits those notes…those notes, you only then notice that you hadn’t been breathing because you have to gasp.
I first heard JoAnna’s voice at the first Leonard Cohen Tribute at Soulful Space. She sang “Ballad of a Runaway Horse” and “Anthem” with masterful skill. That treat was repeated at the second encore performance at The Lyric on April 28. One of the highlights of the evening, JoAnna’s voice shifted easily from the slow, meditative sound of “Ballad” to the gypsy-like rhythm of “Anthem”, singing Cohen’s famous line, “that’s how the light gets in” with the spellbinding effect that certainly would make the late singer-songwriter proud.
Produced by Anita Courtney and Purple Carrots Productions, the Cohen tributes were both sell out performances that brought together a diverse array of local musicians to offer their personal tributes to the master. On April 28th, the doors of the theater were thrown open to ventilate the heat as JoAnna and the others joined in verses of “Hallelujah” that spilled out into the streets. JoAnna took the lead on the final verse and belted out a righteous final farewell to Leonard, bouncing her powerful voice off the walls of that historic theater with a stunning, goosebump-inducing crescendo.
Joanna James performing with Richard Young (bass) and Anna Hess (violin) at the original Leonard Cohen Tribute concert
JoAnna came into music as a young girl when her grandpa picked up a violin for $100 from a nun in Mankato, Minneosta, near her hometown of St. Paul. The middle of five kids, her siblings refused the instrument and Joanna was given the violin and lessons with a kind teacher she greatly admired.
Joining orchestra in high school, JoAnna happened upon the guitar, songwriters who played the likes of Lilith Fair, and a book of tablature for Nirvana Unplugged. By 14, she was playing a three-hour gig in a Wisconsin bookstore to a full house. From there, her career has taken her across the country several times over and brought her into songwriting collaboration with a variety of musicians and labels.
JoAnna cowrites and collaborates on songs with many, including Josh Grange, pedal steel player for Sheryl Crow, and Jessy Greene, who has toured with Foo Fighters and Pink, all friends from the “small Minnesota music scene.” She first hears the song, she says, and then finds different processes for integrating the lyrics and music. Inspired by “that” teacher, Mr. Hanlin, who taught her “the connection between music and poetry,” JoAnna is highly adaptive, whether meeting strict deadlines for toplining gigs or musing through a stream-of-consciousness for her own original songs.
Motivated by friendship and a sad but necessary goodbye, Anita and JoAnna are pairing up once more for a show featuring JoAnna before she leaves the bluegrass for the mountains of Colorado. Moving to be closer to family, the show on July 27th at First Presbyterian Church Chapel on North Mill will be JoAnna’s big send-off. She will be joined by several stellar local musicians including Anna Hess and Richard Young, who accompanied her at both Cohen tributes, and Lee Carroll on keys. Maggie Lander will join with backup vocals. The show will be a combination of musicians as well as covers and originals, some solo, some with accompaniment.
“For me, to produce a show, it needs to meet 3 criteria,” says Anita Courtney of Purple Carrots Productions: “feature great musicians in an intimate setting that pays the musicians well.JoAnna’s show checks all the boxes. The chapel is beautiful, has great acoustics and seats 100 people. I call JoAnna the ‘goosebump girl’. She gets inside a song, really tries to understand it, feel it and convey that to the listeners.”
Anita is very excited about the combination of musical talent that will be on stage with JoAnna for the show. “Lee Carroll’s stellar piano, Maggie Lander’s beautiful vocals and the professional and soulful string instrumentalists—Anna Hess on violin and Richard Young on bass—and I think we will all be gobsmacked.”
“Gobsmacked” was the compliment Anita received after the Cohen tributes, and she ensures an all-JoAnna James show will be equally effective. The intimate setting of the chapel, JoAnna’s powerfully subtle voice, and a cast of stellar musicians guarantee that she is right. JoAnna feels strongly the power music induces, and she hopes for that exchange on the 27th.
“My biggest hope is what I always hope for with a show…that some sort of cycle of exchange happens, cause that’s what music is, it’s this experience through time, and to share it with these people who are willing to give you their time and attention. I hope that people can walk away with some kind of good feeling and catharsis. That is my hope.”
I was 18 when I bought my first Leonard Cohen tape and slid it into the car stereo of my Dad’s old Buick. Was This What You Wanted? began to play, and the whole world of one naïve Catholic Italian girl from Buffalo changed.
Music has that power, and that whole tape of the album New Skin for the Old Ceremony had a powerful influence on me as an audiophile. Lyrics suddenly became the most important part of a song, and Cohen was certainly one of the great sages of lyrical construction.
On the night of the election when I opened my newsfeed and learned that the great poet had gone to his reward, as my mother says, I felt an immense grief. I had to do something.
My simple Facebook suggestion to put on a show in tribute to Cohen resulted in a rapid response from musicians in town interested in getting involved. Clearly, so many of the local musicians I admire were as brokenhearted as me over the loss of this great, influential artist.
So, I found myself organizing a Leonard Cohen Tribute at The Burl, where my friend Bryan Minks gave us a Monday night to simply have a stage where we could pay tribute to a man to whom we all felt a strong musical connection. We decided to pass the hat for donations, and someone suggested we send anything collected to Standing Rock to help the water protectors in their struggle. The event began to take form.
The 28th of November was a damp and dreary night in Lexington, Kentucky, and the UK Wildcats were playing on tv. I wasn’t sure what to expect for turnout, but the room was already filling at 7:30. I placed candles on the tables as promised, and the first band began setting up. The intent was simply for each singer or group to choose two Cohen songs, perform them in their own way, and we would hopefully move smoothly from one set to the next, working Nolan Dunn too hard as he skillfully modified the soundboard for each different performer.
The Northside Sheiks (photo above) started the night with their signature blues vibe, Willie Eames giving his style to Almost Like the Blues and Slow with Lee Carroll on accordion, Smith Donaldson on Bass, Robert Frahm on guitar and David White on drums. From there, the packed house listened to a steady stream of great Lexington area musicians: Chris Sullivan, Warren Byrom, Brian Combs, Bryan Minks, Keith Rowland, Doc Feldman (with a little bit of help from yours truly), Eric Cummins, Chelsea Nolan, Josh Nolan, Derek Spencer, Ben Aubrey with Trinity Curtsinger, Rob Rawlings and Alex Parkansky. And then came a duet on strings with Elias Gross on viola and vocals and Richard Young on Bass, which grew into a trio that added Anna Hess on violin to back Kevin Holm-Hudson on keys when he led the entire group in Cohen’s Hallelujah to end the evening.
The Northside Sheiks
The Northside Sheiks
Chris Sullivan and Warren Byrom
Chris Sullivan and Warren Byrom
The night proceeded exactly as I had imagined it: candles flickered, people in quiet conversations between sets. When each performer began, the entire room hushed, even with the game on mute back at the bar. With the two songs they had chosen, each artist blended Cohen’s brilliant poetry with their own style and instrument to make it theirs.
“I’m always pleased when somebody sings a song of mine. In fact, I never get over that initial rush of happiness when someone says they are going to sing a song of mine. I always like it,” the late Cohen once noted in an interview on Pacifica Radio. “That song enters the world, and it gets changed, like everything else — that’s OK as long as there are more authentic versions. But a good song, I think, will get changed.”
He knew, of course, that his songs would live on. He even told us so in Tower of Song. Each artist or group of artists paid homage to Cohen that night, as candle flames flickered and the rain spattered against the windows. The Roll n’ Smoke food truck was parked outside, and the tangy aroma of barbecue floated through the Burl blending nicely with the fragrance of candles.
The audience was treated to a wide variety of genres as each artist individualized Cohen’s songs, piecing together the entire crazy quilt of the evening. From the Sheik’s blues interpretation to Bryan Mink’s Tower of Song with that country metal edge he has, to Chelsea Nolan’s booming vocals to Alex Parkansky’s drone metal guitar lifting Cohen’s music to surreal levels. Then the night went to strings, and the room, still nearly full even at 11:30 p.m. on a dark, wet Monday night, melted with the candles as all the singers took the stage once more to back Kevin Holm-Hudson in Hallelujah.
We all sang along, barely able to hold back during the verses as we harmonized into the chorus. I felt like I was in church again, the candle light blurring past the strings in front of us, the keys played perfectly as each of the seven verses guided us along. The crowd joined in too – everyone knows the words to this iconic song – and that room full of gorgeous wood and candles and people who simply love great musical poetry, that room rang with the collection of those voices. No voice was distinguishable from another. And then the last chorus was sung, and Kevin paused for just a moment of silence, and ended the night with those two words that took all our breath away: “Goodnight, Leonard.”
We raised a total of $700 for the Sacred Stone Camp at Standing Rock. My friend Psera Newman, Direct Action Trainer for the Lexington Chapter of Greenpeace, took the stage twice and spoke to the audience about her time at Standing Rock, and why she chose Sacred Stone Camp as the appropriate recipient of contributions, describing it as the beating heart of the body that is the Standing Rock resistance.
Folks were unbelievably generous all night long, and the money order to Sacred Stone is en route, along with a letter I wrote to the leader of the camp, Ladonna Brave Bull Allard.
I am so proud of Lexington. I am so proud of all the musicians who took the stage that night, who took the time out of their lives to learn new songs and perform them and support each other simply to do it. For the love of the music. To show respect to someone who devoted their life to creating beauty and art for others to love. And to share the effort in the form of charity, for others who really need some help right now.
Goodnight, Leonard Cohen. Thanks for the beauty, sir.
(Credit: Derek Feldman, all photos and video.)
The Set List:
1. The Northside Sheiks- Almost like the Blues, Slow
2. Chris Sullivan- Famous Blue Raincoat
3. Warren Byrom and Chris Sullivan- Suzanne
4. Brian Combs- The Butcher, Heart with no Companion
5. Bryan Minks- Tower of Song, Is this what you wanted
6. Keith Rowland- The Stranger Song, Bird on the Wire
7. Derek Feldman w/ Cara Blake Coppola- You Want it Darker, There is a War, If It Be Your Will
8. Eric Cummins- Tonight Will Be Fine, Darkness
9. Chelsea Nolan- On the Level, One Of Us Can’t Be Wrong
10. Josh Nolan- Alexandra Leaving, Diamonds in the Mine
11. Derek Spencer- So Long, Marianne, Steer Your Way
12. Ben Aubrey- Dance Me to the End of Love, Here it Is
13. Rob Rawlings- Iodine, Paper Thin Hotel
14. Alex Parkansky- The Future, Waiting for the Miracle
15. Elias Aaron Irving Gross- Chelsea Hotel
16. Kevin Holm-Hudson-the Runaway Horse, Hallelujah