New Workplay show honors legacy of Leonard Cohen

by Lee J. Green

Fans of Leonard Cohen can rejoice with a “Hallelujah” as the United States’ only “unofficial” Leonard Cohen “cover band” makes its first live appearance at WorkPlay in Birmingham this month.

David Stegall and Reid Brooks with The Famous Blue Raincoats will perform “The Music and History of Leonard Cohen” on Feb. 23 at 8 p.m.

“People either know him and love him, or don’t know him but should,” said Stegall, who lives in Birmingham. “He was a remarkable artist and person — a true poet whose work explored love, religion, politics. Leonard Cohen had such an interesting life. I’ve read his books and listened to all of his 250-something songs. He was quite an influence on me and my music.”

Cohen was a Jewish Canadian singer-songwriter, poet and novelist, born in 1934 in Montreal. He pursued a career as a poet and novelist during the 1950s and early 1960s, not launching his music career until 1967 at the age of 33.

A musical innovator, most of Cohen’s recordings were folk songs. But he would incorporate some spoken word, blending in jazz as well as even Asian and Mediterranean influences. He released a few albums in the late 1960s and through the 1970s.

Perhaps Cohen’s most famous song, “Hallelujah,” was first released on his studio album “Various Positions” in 1984. Later in the decade, he experimented with synthesized productions — a departure from his minimalist style. “I’m Your Man,” released in 1988, remains his most popular album.

His 1992 album, “The Future,” included dark lyrics and references to political and social unrest. Cohen took a 10-year hiatus, then returned to music in 2001 with an album that was a major hit in Canada and Europe.

After a successful string of tours from 2008 through 2013, Cohen released three albums in the final four years of his life. He died Nov. 7, 2016 in Los Angeles at the age of 82.

Stegall, 63, is an insurance salesman by day and musician by night. He had mostly played folk music on guitar and didn’t start singing until a year or so ago.

Stegall primarily played with Brooks, performing folk rock cover songs primarily, including Bob Dylan, Neil Young and few Cohen songs.

“About a year ago, Reid and I started talking about a show covering Leonard Cohen,” he said. “We don’t know of another one in the U.S. — just a few in Canada and Europe. His music tells so many stories, but we knew we needed to do a show that was also filled with narrative about Leonard Cohen and his amazing life.”

They assembled a group of professional musicians to back them up — The Famous Blue Raincoats, named for a popular Cohen song. The deep-voiced Stegall handles lead vocals and Brooks does the narratives.

“Reid is in his 30s and he became a Leonard Cohen fan through his parents,” said Stegall. “I have been a fan for much of my life. I knew a lot of his music, but in researching for this show, I learned several things about him not just as a musician, but as a person.”

Stegall said the show will primarily go in chronological order with a few exceptions. Popular songs such as “Suzanne” and “Chelsea Hotel” will be included alongside lesser known ones such as “I Can’t Forget” and the rocking “Closing Time.”

He hopes the WorkPlay show is successful and that they can take “The Music and History of Leonard Cohen” on the road.

“We want to carry on his legacy through music and stories,” said Stegall. “He touched on so many real things that are relevant today. I hope we can continue to let future generations appreciate what he gave to all of us.”

Ticket information is available here.