Saluting the music of 1970, Marc Cohn making a sold-out stop at The Ark
Not only was it the start of a new decade and the end of the tumultuous and revolutionary ‘60s, but the Beatles were breaking up, Simon and Garfunkel were in the midst of their split, and the ‘60s' hopes of peace and good vibes were shattered when an audience member was stabbed to death at the Altamont Speedway Festival during a Rolling Stones performance. (Technically, the fest was in December of '69, but the documentary "Gimme Shelter," which captured much of the violence that marred the event, was released in '70.)
In addition, 1970 was the year that several seminal singer-songwriter albums were released: Van Morrison’s "Moondance,” Cat Stevens’ “ Tea for the Tillerman” and James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James,” among others. And it was also the same year the Grateful Dead made their roots move, temporarily setting aside their penchant for long, expository improvisations and releasing two country-folk albums, “American Beauty” and “Workingman’s Dead,” which would become classics of the genre.
Marc Cohn, the singer-songwriter best known for his 1991 hit "Walking in Memphis," says that that particular year, and those albums, made a huge impression on him, even though he was just 11 years old at the time. So, on his latest album, “Listening Booth: 1970,” he paid deep homage to those artists, and to those recordings from that year.
The disc includes his reinterpretations of Morrison’s “Into the Mystic,” Paul Simon’s “The Only Living Boy in New York,” the Dead’s “New Speedway Boogie,” Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Long as I can See the Light,” Stevens’ “Wild World,” J.J. Cale’s “After Midnight” (which Eric Clapton had a hit with in ’70), Paul McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed,” John Lennon’s “Look at Me,” and the Box Tops’ “The Letter” (which was a hit for them in ’67, and again for Joe Cocker in ’70).
And Cohn—who comes to The Ark for a sold-out show on Wednesday—gives all of them his signature soulfully gruff vocal treatment, while also being careful not to just serve up slavish copies of the originals.
For “Wild World,” he slows the tempo and turns it into an R&B shuffle, featuring some nimble, jazzy guitar chording and a sweet harmonica solo that recalls Stevie Wonder. On “Maybe I’m Amazed,” he also pulls back on the throttle, offering it up as a wistful, finger-picked ballad, steering clear of the wide dynamic range and McCartney’s big-chorus vocal approach.“The Letter” is similarly languorous, as Cohn and producer / guitarist John Leventhal (Roseanne Cash’s husband) deliver a slinky but smoky late-night feel, complete with a jazzy walking-bass line. Unsurprisingly, Cohn’s version of “After Midnight” is much closer in spirit to Cale’s languid, Okie-country-blues original than Clapton’s more revved-up version.
Much of the record is marked by this more relaxed feel, with a few exceptions, like “New Speedway Boogie,” which begins with a spare arrangement before Leventhal’s twangy guitar kicks in, along with bass and drums, giving it a fittingly chugging groove similar to the Dead’s original.
“John and I sat in the studio and went through all these amazing tunes,” Cohn told the Huffington Post, describing their song-selection process. “It became clear to me that these were great songs, but it was really the beginning of when I decided I wanted to be a musician. Because for me, not for everyone, but definitely for me, 1970 was the beginning of the Golden Age of the album—especially when it came to singer-songwriters—and it was still the golden age of the single ... like ‘The Tears Of A Clown’ by Smokey Robinson” (which Cohn also covers on “Listening Booth.”)
In an interview he did with National Public Radio, Cohn further delineated the standards they applied when choosing songs:
"Two things were important: First, could we bring something fresh to this song without just rehashing it,” he said. “And the second was, is it a good song for me to sing — that it sort of fit my voice and my tone," he said. "But that was the challenge. And some of them didn't work. Some of the ones I really hoped would work were too iconic to change."
The disc also features some interesting and inspired guest turns. On his reworking of Bread’s “Make It With You,” he collaborates with India.arie; Aimee Mann sits in on Badfinger’s “No Matter What”; Kristina Train accompanies Cohn on “The Tears of a Clown”; and the great country-folk-rocker Jim Lauderdale lends his winsome pipes to “New Speedway Boogie.” (Lauderdale’s participation was fitting, since he has collaborated with Dead lyricist Robert Hunter on a few albums in the last decade.)
In his personal life, Cohn faced down a big challenge a few years ago. In 2005, he was the victim of a carjacking during which he suffered a gunshot wound to the head. The bullet missed penetrating his skull by just a centimeter, and was successfully removed from his left temple. So, the injury was not life-threatening, but the entire experience caused to suffer from post traumatic stress disorder.
"I was so lucky where the bullet ended up, and it was just taken out while I watched the doctor do it,” he told NPR. "What was left for me to deal with was the emotional side effects. That was difficult. I had some nightmares and a lot of anxiety, but nothing that lasted too long. I was back on the road four months later and grateful to be.
"I really came out of all the stuff that went down for me feeling like I have a great job (that) I want to do as much as I can.”