This first in an occasional series* looks at those moments when something special happens in a song whether live or in the studio that makes your heart leap, spine shiver and moves you.
Once there was a song beloved by music fans all over the world. In the mainstream it was fairly unknown and rarely in its original form. Artists like Jeff Buckley and John Cale had introduced it to a whole new audience. A delicate and brittle piece it was still malleable enough to takes all manner of interpretation and arrangement without breaking.
Then came Simon Cowell's evil plan to mould it into a mushy lifeless MOR ballad with all the emotion and mystery taken and replaced with diva histrionics and singing-seventy-notes-when-one-will-do school of vocals. And so the song passed into kareoke hell and the world was dark.
Yet before the axe fell, a singer who had confessed her love\lust for its author, Leonard Cohen, and his music on film ('What Leonard Cohen Did For Me' - see Youtube) played the song live as the finale of her set and a version of it was captured on, what was then, the hottest ever day EVER at Regents Park Open Air Theatre in London. Appearing on her covers album 'Relations' it perfectly captured that wonderful summer night where for once London was calm and still.
Kathryn Williams version of the song is my personal favourite. I could spend a good part of an evening in a pub arguing between the other fine versions and the original but for me, this is the one.
To begin with - a women is singing it - yes, state the bleedin' obvious - but I had a right 2 n 8 with someone once who said that only a man could sing those lyrics otherwise it was a nonsense. His beef was with the line "remember when I moved in you" and its literal meaning to him. His tangential riff involving sex toys will not be repeated here. I argued that the line was up to any manner of interpretation and did it really matter that much. I can't recall how the conversation ended but I think it was with me thinking he was a bit of a dick.
But it's Kathryn's performance of the song which makes it so special. its not surprising to me that they chose to include the live version of the song rather than attempt a studio take. The song unfurls slowly. Kathryn considering and savoring every line. I recall the first time I saw her perform it with the crowd enraptured as if the whole room was holding its breath.
Then came the extraordinary climax of the song - Kathryn would grip both sides of the mic, close her eyes, and rock slightly back and forth on her heels and this sound emerged as if it was being ripped from her throat. An animalistic, painful, raw emotion that never failed to move me however many times I saw her perform. It was shocking yet fit with her reading of the lyric perfectly. A lump would rise in my throat and and I would physically shiver from the intensity of what I was feeling and witnessing. Sometimes she appeared taken aback by the sounds she made herself.
It was one of those rare times when music becomes something "other" - it crackles in the air and becomes so powerful you can barely breathe. That's when it becomes special to me. Its in the moment and then its gone but you never forget the effect it had.
Simon Cowell stole this from the people, Kathryn Williams should steal it back for you when you watch this.
I hope one day she will pull the song back out and give us some shivers once again. That said, there is plenty of similar passion and heart in her own songs for her not to need to lean on Lenny.
You can hear Kathryn's live version of 'Hallelujah' on her album 'Relations' (rare example of a GREAT cover LP IMHO)and catch her live later this year all across the UK.
* when I think of it