The Gospel According to Leonard Cohen,” a lovely, understated tribute to the Canadian singer-songwriter hosted by singer Perla Batalla at UCLA’s Royce Hall Saturday night, is the latest concert/album to honor Cohen, coming hot on the heels of the Hal Wilner-produced “Came so Far for Beauty,” which formed the basis of last year’s concert film and album “I’m Your Man.”
Batalla, a warbler with an expressively supple voice who sang backup for Cohen in the ’90s, participated in the Wilner tribute, and her Royce Hall production showed his influence, if not his Rolodex, although there were enough names — Jackson Browne and Michael McDonald probably the best known — to sell out the 1,800-seat theater.
But multiartist tribute shows can often feel like the professional-singer version of “American Idol”: a parade of performers take the stage for one or two songs, and — regardless of star power — the success of any given perf has more to do with song selection than raw talent.
The most effective perfs were by the singers who took the songs in new and surprising directions.
Jill Sobule was by far the evening’s most effective singer. She gave a much-needed jolt to the overly mellow first half, taking her cue on “First We Take Manhattan” from the lyric that follows the title, “Then we take Berlin,” and turned the original’s disco throb into brittle, Weimar-era cabaret, a vision of hell where the damned are feted by the cheesy, girlish pop wriggles of the middle eight. She showed her range in the second half with a beautifully modulated “Who by Fire.”
Howard Tate was also impressive, as he reworked “The Land of Plenty” into an impassioned country soul sermon and “Tower of Song” into an affecting lament. Martha Gonzalez, from local band Quetzal, upped the emotional temperature on “Sisters of Mercy” and “Famous Blue Raincoat” (the latter translated into Spanish), giving them a bright, idiomatic Latin-American flavor. And Dave Alvin brought the house down with his flinty “Democracy,” delivered with the perfect combination of care and revulsion.
On the other hand, with his folky earnestness, Jackson Browne was unable to find a connection with the mordant irony that animates “Waiting for the Miracle.” He was somewhat more successful with “A Thousand Kisses Deep,” but his easy reading still missed the rueful bitterness in lines such as “your little winning streak.” And Michael McDonald’s rich, easy tone is lovely, but in the service of “Coming Back to You” and “Hallelujah,” it felt like pouring caramel sauce on a good steak.
Bill Frisell, who anchored the fine backing band, added two instrumentals: A straight-ahead “Chelsea Hotel No. 2” was too mellow for its own good, veering toward Muzak; he was better served on the atmospheric “Tacoma Trailer,” one of the rare instrumentals in Cohen’s oeuvre, which also gave Greg Leisz a chance to stretch out.
Batalla was a personable and gracious host and kept the evening moving at a brisk pace, climaxing in the politically fraught finale of “Anthem” (a duet with Julie Christensen) and “Democracy.” Her versions of “Suzanne” and “Bird on a Wire” (the latter the title track from her just-released album of Cohen songs) were beautifully and carefully considered, making two of Cohen’s best-known songs sound fresh.