Leonard Cohen, The Coolin' System, 8 off 8th and more 

Zen Cohen
When Leonard Cohen took the stage at TPAC's Jackson Hall last Thursday night, he and his band probably could have soaked up the rapturous applause for half an hour, but they went right to work, opening with a breezy rendition of "Dance Me to the End of Love." Sitting in our snug theater seats (an unusual comfort for us), we needed about three songs before we got our heads around the fact that yes, we were actually here, in the same room with Leonard Cohen. (Leonard Cohen!) And he was onstage singing these songs to us.

Once the initial buzz wore off (and before our malty one took hold), we realized that one of the great songwriters of all time was up there onstage surrounded by a really slick Adult Contemporary band. Have we ever thought that "Bird on the Wire" might be improved by making it sound more like "Wonderful Tonight"? Why, no, we haven't. If it was anybody else singing any other set of songs to an accompaniment this smooth, we might have nodded off or walked out somewhere around the hour mark—the words "Kenny" and "G" had bubbled up in our thoughts, and trust us, that does not feel good. But this was Leonard Cohen, and if there is something more sublime than hearing his voice fill a room with poetry, it is not for sale on this earth (that we know of). Stylish, energetic and sharp, he had us by the vertebrae the entire night. (We should also mention that the sound was pristine—like listening to a record on an incredible stereo.)

While we were hoping for some of the grittier songs—"Is This What You Wanted," "The Butcher," etc.—that isn't really where Cohen's heart is these days, and we're fine with that. He paused at one point to thank us for sharing this evening with him and to remind us how lucky we all were just to be able to see a show like this "with so much of the world plunged in chaos." Lucky doesn't even begin to cover it. And he was funny, too! He introduced "Chelsea Hotel No. 2" by telling a story of riding the elevator and asking a woman (presumably Janis Joplin, the song's subject) if she was looking for someone. "Kris Kristofferson," she answered. "You're in luck," he says he replied. A wonderfully chilling "Everybody Knows" and "Who by Fire"—complete with mesmerizing solo Spanish guitar intro—were highlights among highlights from the first set. During the intermission, we grabbed some beer in the lobby, where everyone from film auteurs (Harmony Korine) to political bigwigs (Chip Forrester) was milling about and waiting for the miracle to resume.

We returned to our seats to find Cohen standing in front of a keyboard. "Don't worry," he assured us, "This thing goes by itself. You've probably never seen anything like it." He got the second set going with the thoroughly awesome "Tower of Song," which got a loud hoot for mentioning Hank Williams (the Chablis had started to take effect in the expensive seats) and for Cohen's solo, easily the least slick run of notes played all night. Following were the timeless "Suzanne" and "Sisters of Mercy," both transcendent. He played a new song, a haunting, bluesy number we're pretty sure is called "The Darkness," which segued into a moving rendition of "The Partisan" and on into the inevitable, majestic "Hallelujah," which brought out a few battery-operated candles and the like.

In addition to belting forcefully on "So Long, Marianne," Cohen bounded back onto the stage for each of the encores, displaying more energy than we can dream of having at age 75 (if we make it that long). He changed up a few lyrics here and there—replacing "anal sex" with "careless sex" in "The Future," for example—and played with the melodies a bit, but mostly he just reinforced how indelible these songs are. Even when a gaudy saxophone solo interrupted the dreary beauty of "Famous Blue Raincoat"—the sonic equivalent of watching Casablanca and hearing Bogey say, "Play it again, Jar Jar"—Cohen drew us all right back into the song the second he began incanting another verse into his microphone. "Here's a man," he sang near show's end, "still working for your smile."

Aw, you had us at "I tried to leave you."

Cool it now

Ya know, for a band that had their promo photo taken in front of a brick wall, local soul-jazz outfit The Coolin' System are pretty frickin' awesome. Despite committing that most egregious of faux pas and having one of the goofier nomenclatures not in paragraph form we've come across, The Coolin' System might just be one of our favorite new bands in the whole city. Their tight, instrumental funk workouts were so good that we'll ignore their aesthetic transgressions—it's pretty obvious that this band thinks solely about the tunes.

We missed the openers Gabe Vitek & The Ivory and James Wallace & The Naked Light, but that was a conscious decision, not just another case of our perpetual tardiness. See, there's this thing called the MySpace and you can preview music so you know whether the bands are going to be more interesting than watching the health care vote on C-SPAN. Health care FTW. Also, Taylor Swift was on SNL. This is important stuff, folks, unlike, say, nillas with a need to tell us about their problems while scratching their chins. What if Kanye had interrupted and we weren't there to tweet it? The Internet would have collapsed and we would've been to blame—and that wouldn't have been pleasant for anyone.

We arrived at The Basement just in time for The Coolin' System's first song—or it might have been the second. As the door guy pointed out, it was jazzy, jammy and instrumental, kinda difficult to keep track of when one song ended and one began—just the way we like it! We made our way into the room, got a drink and sat ourselves down in a darkened corner to soak in the sounds. The System were tight, rocking a groove that recalled the brighter, bouncier vibes of Chicago's late-'60s pop-jazz scene that allowed the band's top-notch musicians to shine on their solos without ever distracting from the songs. And it might just be the elementary school band nerd deep inside of us talking here, but The Coolin' System's horn section is the real attraction, and when they brought up an extra trombone player to lay it down real funky like we almost lost our shit. Oh, funky trombone, take us all the way, all the way home!

Our one big complaint was that the set was too short. Sure it probably clocked in at a normal set time, but when you listen to The Coolin' System you can tell that these guys know the hits, the deep cuts and everything in between, and you sorta wish that they would bust out all the stops. Is it too much to ask for a two, maybe, three hour set from these stellar musicians? No, we don't think it is. Frankly, we could have rocked all night, but it's probably a good thing we didn't—Johnny Law was waiting for us to leave the premises and one more beer probably would have landed us in the tank for the evening. So, yeah, scratch that—it was a perfectly timed set.

Thirty seconds to Mercy
As Music City's premier cover band Guilty Pleasures have found for years now, nostalgia is a hot commodity in this town. The '90s edition of Nashville Cream's 8 off 8th decades series was by far the best attended and was perhaps the inspiration for singer-songwriter Dave Paulson (whose band The Privates performed one of the best sets that night) to form Nashville's only exclusively '90s tribute, My So-Called Band. If the packed house at their Saturday night Mercy Lounge performance is any indication, the idea was nothing short of genius.

The night crawled up from a humble start with a performance by Mary Nails. Sporting two boys, two girls and a lone keyboard supplying the beats and music, the quartet delivered a funky, rave-y mix of electroclash, R&B and new jack swing. It reminded us of maybe a tongue-out-of-cheek edition of Spring Hill Spider Party, with their intentions all the while never fully clear—with so many hipsters in tow, surely there were some ironic overtones, right? We couldn't tell, which sadly kept us from enjoying it as much as we could have.

By the time the main attraction opened with Lit's "My Own Worst Enemy," a solid crowd seething with drunken, dewy-eyed 20-somethings took literally no time to smell the teen spirit. Clad in flannel and eyeing lyrical cheat sheets littering the floor, Paulson and his all-star band led a nonstop series of officially old school sing-alongs by the likes of Michael Jackson, Weezer, Oasis, Radiohead and Third Eye Blind among others. Keeping things interesting and true to Nashville tradition, they were joined onstage by several guests: Cortney Tidwell singing leads on The Breeders' "Cannonball," Matt Friction belting out "Come Out and Play (Keep 'Em Separated)" by the Offspring, and familiar sidewoman Jordan Caress doing as much justice to Alannis Morissette's "You Oughta Know" as any Morissette song probably deserves. Folky sweetheart Caitlin Rose not only heated things up early on singing lead on "Only Happy When It Rains" by Garbage, she rounded out the band's double encore with a roof-raising rendition of No Doubt's "Spiderwebs."

The band kept it simple and obvious, careful not to slow momentum with any unrecognizable deep tracks. They kept it rockin', doing very faithful versions of rock-based songs, eschewing the decade's wealth of pop, R&B and hip-hop hits. And they also kept it short—while they could have easily strung this audience along well into the wee hours, their set lasted only around 40 minutes. Kick yourself if you missed it, as there was a lot to be missed—not the least of which was an epic crowd surfing fail by Matt Friction. But then, not to worry: an outfit this high in demand surely won't fizzle out soon.

Time for you-know-what. It's easy to email thespin@nashvillescene.com.


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