A Conspiracy of Beards Reinvents Leonard Cohen at Drom

by delarue

Is there a sexier band alive than A Conspiracy of Beards? Last night at Drom the thirty-piece all-male San Francisco choir squeezed themselves onto the stage dressed in tasteful earthtoned suits, several members sporting a more individualistic variety of hats. At present, only about a half-dozen of the group’s members actually have beards, although ultimately, the only thing that matters is their voices, which are strong and assured. Originally assembled for a one-off performance to realize a concept envisioned by the late artist Peter Kadyk, they grew into a local phenomenon and have since expanded their fanbase around the world. They dedicate themselves to reinventing the Leonard Cohen catalog as vocal works. Rewarding the crowd who’d come out for them on an unseasonably cold, rainy night, they delivered a richly resonant set heavy on the hits.

Some of their arrangements, like the version of Suzanne with its punchy echo effects and eerie close harmonies, are very sophisticated, and the choir pulled them off, one by one and made it all look effortless. Some of their other covers are closer to punk in spirit, like the broodingly Wagnerian march they made out of Everybody Knows, or their unexpectedly jaunty take on Tower of Song, which was part doo-wop, part sea chantey. So Long Marianne got a lush rendition peppered with suspenseful pauses, quite a change from the skeletal original. By contrast, the churchiest moment of the night – and biggest audience hit – was a slow, hushed take of Hallelujah.

With material like this, there are bound to be transcendent, transporting moments. The high point of many was a chillingly gothic version of Who By Fire. It’s one of Cohen’s best songs, but the original has a dated folk-rock arrangement that undermines the gravity of the lyrics. This group’s version began with the lyrics making the rounds of the voices over a resonant “who” underneath. When they’d finally reached the end, they ran the chorus a final time and ended with a single high harmony rising over the murky ambience: the effect was spine-tingling. The rest of the show could have been anticlimactic after that, but it wasn’t, with a serpentine, waltzing version of Tonight Will Be Fine, a celebratory take of Anthem that played up Cohen’s snarling political content, and Dance Me to the End of Love, done as an energetically seductive tango, conductor Daryl Henline moving to the side, putting his arm around his bandmate and adding another layer of richness to the wash of voices.

A Conspiracy of Beards will be at Cloud City (the former Dead Herring loft) in south Williamsburg tonight, May 25 at 7ish and then on a killer bill at Highline Ballroom on Sundaythe 26th at 1 PM with sultry resonator guitarist/bluesmama Mamie Minch and her band opening. Be aware that the last time they played there, they sold out the club: advance tix are recommended and still available as of tonight.