Thursday, April 12, 2007

Anjani Thomas
in a Leonard Cohen Presents
2 Night Stand at The Drake
April 25-26,2007

Anjani Thomas was in Toronto this past week for two shows at the cozy Drake Hotel. She's touring the recently released Leonard Cohen collaboration, Blue Alert.

This showcase launched in Europe back in March with some radio promos and live showcases. I was more than pleased to see Leonard sit in on a couple songs with her at a Warsaw record release promo and thought that was reason enough to get tickets for both nights in Toronto. He introduced her at a couple club shows. It's since been reported that Leonard, who usually sits in a 'Zen-like trance'when she sings, will not be in Toronto. I'm taking them on their word there but will keep a keen eye on the crowd.

The North American leg of this tour consists of only 8 shows so far, I'm betting it will be as sweet as it is short.

Anjani also has the distinction of launching a month of Toronto shows that will feature some classy and talented torch singers, from Maria Muldaur to Amy Winehouse and closing with Joan Armatrading. If fortune smiles they will be joined by a June date featuring Marianne Faithfull. All these women have talent and an edge. I think I'm going to enjoy this.

On the surface, Anjani is the least adventurous of those acts but she has one unique advantage...Cohen's words. Blue Alert is a collaborative effort, something more than Leonard-by-proxy but something less than Leonard. And to say that besmirches no one, you gotta climb a lot of steps in the Tower of Song to reach him, even if he's still looking up at Hank. She plays these songs pretty straight. A little jazzy-scat riff once in awhile, a bit of a diva reach for the high notes on occassion, but nothing that overwhelms the words. She really respects the emotion of the lyrics and you can tell by watching her that she pours all her energy into conveying them

Anjani has been an integral part of Cohen's act since she first signed on to do the backing vocals on Hallelujah in 1984. She's been an even more integral part of his life for most of the past decade as she and Cohen are...well, at the very least, friends-with-benefits. It's said that when Anjani sings Leonard sits front-and-center, enthralled. Well Leonard may have been born at night but it wasn't last night. I mean, how long can anybody sing in a given day? If I was 73 I'd sit enthralled in front of this 48 year old songstress and think it was a small price to pay for her company. Even if she couldn't sing. But she can.

The Drake Hotel is an upscale establishment on the western outskirts of Toronto's alt-club mecca, the Queen St West Strip. On his end of the neighbourhood there's a whole slew of less dangerous lounge-type bars for the more chronologically-challenged. Prime among those, the Gladstone, a Rolling Stones themed bar and the Cadillac Lounge. In the same league, The Drake. If it weren't for gentrification we boomers would have nowhere to drink.

The Underground Room holds about 200 people. Bench seats and fold out chairs provide a comfortable environment for an hour of soothing jazz stylings. Too bad we had to sit for an hour and a half before the start of the show. It'll be better tomorrow, I'll drink more, sit less. Wine glasses out numbered beer and liqour glasses combined. Broken wine glasses tied broken beer bottles, 1-1. Maybe I won't drink more, there's people here who have that under control.

So we await the arrival of the engenue, Anjani. Oh right, forgot to mention. The emphasis in on the last syllable. Read that sentence again and see how it sounds now.
That kind of pretentiousness is just perfect for this chandeliered basement room. There was a day it would have been a smoky, hazy, hole-in-the-wall but we're past that now. The disco ball looks a little out of place.

Any sense that we're putting on airs is immediately quelled when the very personable performer lights on stage with a 'girl-next-door-aw-shucks' appreciation for all the attention. Most photo's we see of her online are glamour shots. The moving version of Anjani is much more accessible, more magnetic, doesn't look like she'll break if you touch her.

She's backed by a four-man band and a female backup singer. Every one of them has their damper on. The music is soft, the vocals are soft, almost whispered, most every song. And no one is in a hurry to get to the end of the tune, each one drifts. Her voice is the vehicle that transports you along this emotive river of life. Or at least, that's how it's supposed to come off. As Blue Alert is a 'mood' record, this atmosphere works very well. It would have been nice to see more of the pace displayed in the lone non-album cover this evening, The Gypsy's Wife, but it's not my show to arrange, just to watch.

The show opens with a vow, No One After You. A story about how love can be revealed to even the most experienced practioner well after you think you've mastered all the gadgets.

That vow is juxtaposed with a peek through the Innermost Door to view final moment of another relationship. One where memory is the last tangible asset, where the starting comes after the parting.

Anjani, who has been standing center stage with a hand mic for the opening numbers, moves to the piano to deliver a Blue Alert, a sensory assault on the mind. A vivid word-picture of the power of passion and how wanting something can be an emotional minefield. There's perfume burning, shrapnel flying, soldiers hitting the dirt, bits of beauty everywhere, a woman telling you no and somebody bleeding from the lip.

And that's only the first verse.
It's woman as supreme being. Be careful what you wish for, you may not be able to handle it.

The Golden Gate is a travelogue of sorts, a descriptive narrative of the streets of San Francisco. A little lighter fare to ease the angst.

On the Leonard front she said he'd been with her in Europe and in New York on Tuesday but had grown tired and decided to go home to Montreal rather than come to Toronto. A shame, it would have been cool just to have him do the introduction

Half the Perfect World sounds like it could be a biographical account of the beginning of Leonard and Anjani's relationship. The woman in question was in her 30's when they met, already self-sufficient, already experienced. It's like a gender-mirror of Suzanne as the author finds himself serving her tea. It's really about two perfect worlds, equal halfs, finding themselves at the right time. Neither has a need that would weigh down the coupling, having found themselves at a time when they are weightless and transparent. At a time when 'no counting had begun'. There's a lot packed into a very few words and there's no mistaking the joy Anjani gets from singing this song with images of sex under mosquito netting where the giving and getting is shameless and reciprocal.

That is one raunchy song and even the 'blouse all undone' in Crazy To Love You, doesn't come close to the same heat level.

Band introduction to let the audience cool down. It's getting steamy in here. Actually we're past steamy to sweaty hot. The chlorine dripping from the ceiling pipes kind of gives the room an overall locker-room scent. Tomorrow I'm sitting on the left side.

The Gypsy's Wife is about as close to 'rocking' as we're going to get tonight as we take a brief break from the performance of the complete Blue Alert album.

Never Got To Love You is a song about the regret left behind when opportunity knocks and you're busy elsewhere. It's about pining for the time you could have put to better use. The moments you could have told her the things that would make sure she'd never leave. What I can't tell is if that time covered an entire relationship or a single night at a sky resort in Quebec. Having done a name-check during this song for the town of St Jovite, she tells us that Leonard warned her never to go there, she wouldn't like it. Of course she'd already asked the audience if any one had been there and a half dozen excited fans pumped their hands. She counted only two of them. When asked why Leonard would say that she found herself back-tracking and mumbled something about him not being 'that kind of bar guy', or something to that effect.

The lilting Thanks for the Dance, somewhat reminiscent of Take This Waltz, swings back and forth in a call-and-response kind of way, presenting words and lines as a counter-weight to each other. It's a throwaway song about throwaway emotions. The nonchalance of the brush-off is the antithesis of the sentiment found in the song that preceeded it tonight.

For her first encore Anjani covers a second Cohen original, As the Mist Leaves No Scar then closes the show with a 'fare the well' solo piano version of Nightingale.
Before As The Mist Leaves No Scar she talked about Leonard having written that when he was 17. She compared it to the stuff she was writing at that age and was humbled.

All in all a very enjoyable and successful Canadian debut.

Visit Anjani's MySpace Page

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