Cohen and The Spirits
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Cohen and The Spirits

Dobbs Ferry, New York, United States | SELF

Dobbs Ferry, New York, United States | SELF
Band Folk Adult Contemporary

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Mark Cohen and The Spirits Offer "Moments of Grace"

by Robert Goldblum

In post-9-11 America, Mark Cohen's vision of the Land of the Free is like a salve on an open wound. An homage to America's open spaces and its mythic places, "Moments of Grace" takes a listener from the "gritty sidewalks" of MacDougal Street in New York's Greenwich Village, "along the mighty Hudson" on a train to Buffalo, and out to the heartland on Memorial Day for our ritual rendezvous with speed, where "Engines roar as riders of the howling thunders drive/A blur of cars like shooting stars/It's the Indy 5."

Cohen captures the vast panorama of the American experience. His journey through city and countryside reflects "the yearnings of a soul" (the impetus for the trip to Buffalo), the points on one's inner and outer maps "that hold a special place inside of you."
Cohen's vocal approach is the perfect vehicle for the search. It's as much spoken as sung, and he's as much a storyteller as folk-rocker. And his voice seems to come from a time far off, a pre-cynical America. It's wistful, even sweet, stripped of irony. But Cohen knows that the world is a dangerous place. In "Kosovo," a haunting song that conjures up evil from the Balkans to Rwanda, "there's an enemy behind every tree," and "underneath the surface every day is Halloween." And in the title song, "Moments of Grace," there is this chilling reminder, all the more evocative because it was penned before September 11, of a new kind of evil: "In the distance buildings built to last/They tremble louder than the loudest tempest's rage/Sounding like a howling trumpet's blast/Being just the turning of a page."

Yet, as the title song conveys, there are moments of grace even "in the savage jungles filled with bruising brawls," and "in the storms churning inside of you."

Cohen, whose first band, "The Ingredients of Love," was a 12-piece soul group, is a veteran of the Greenwich Village music scene. Having played the legendary Gerde's Folk City and numerous other clubs, and recorded two albums on the renowned Folkways label, he has assembled a first-rate group of musicians for "Moments of Grace." Guitarist Jim Satten, the recording's co-producer and lead guitar player, was Bo Diddley's music director and has backed numerous music greats; keyboardist Rusty Cloud was with Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes and recently backed Aretha Franklin and the Blues Brothers; drummer Cliff Hackford has played behind the Shirelles and Sam the Sham, and Connie Harvey, on backup vocals, is one of The Chiffons. With other notable band members, they have they created a tight, distinct sound, a hard-to-pin-down but unmistakable blend of folk and rock traditions.

On love songs like "You'll Always Be With Me" and "Just One Night," Cohen makes memory, and its warm afterglow, a main character. "Some nights keep their promises, some slip through our fingers," he writes in "Just One Night," "This one still belongs to us, it carries us, it lingers." And in "You'll Always Be With Me," a sweet innocence - "Two lonely birds on ripples of a stream/Two wild horses on a Coney Island ride" - collides with a sense of loss that after September 11 resonates in unexpected ways, as the song was written long before: "When we woke that morning/I didn't know you'd soon be gone/Now how I miss you but I got to carry on/You'll always be with me."

In "Patterns," Cohen finds "worlds that have evolved," "kaleidoscopic rainbows," and "the chaos of lovers" that are fleeting, but even in these, "The jigsaw notes all fit together/Every one sustained forever."

The one instrumental on the CD, the extended, 13-minute "Wildwood Flower," is classic. Its symphonic, improvisational quality offers the oasis promised in "Moments of Grace," and is another tribute, through Cohen's soaring arrangement of this Carter family traditional country song, to the land "from sea to shining sea."

Cohen is at his best when he journeys into America, and keeps the evil at bay, if just for an instant. He has a knack for capturing the essence of a place, and its defining spirit, where beauty is an unexpected find in an unlikely spot. In "MacDougal Street," that bohemian boulevard in the Village, Cohen is rhapsodic: "The neon turns a-flickering all about the stores/Gypsies fingers beckon you to step inside the doors/Aromas from cafes rise pungent and sweet/Outside the Reggio and Borgia on MacDougal Street." But he sees what lies beneath. "Cause it ain't so much to look at you surely can't deny/But there's more to MacDougal than rightly greets the eye/Out where spirits swirl, where a thousand stories meet/Is on the gritty sidewalks of MacDougal Street."

In "Indy 5," which hurtles forward in staccato lines that build in speed, the great race becomes a metaphor for the kind of reassuring continuity that rolls around every Memorial Day: "Now the track circles like/A ribbon through the years/No one knows what it will bring/The victories, the clashes/The triumphs and the crashes/Yesterday's giants, tomorrow's kings."

"Buffalo" has about it the echo of Steve Goodman's American train epic, "The City of New Orleans." Cohen loves the American landscape - the sweep and the grandeur of it - and it shows in "Buffalo": "From the rocky wooded mountains springs the old Erie/That carried barges from the west to bring them to the sea/Cutting through the most enchanted land that you might find/Cutting through the pathways that ring inside my mind."

But there's a double meaning to "Buffalo" that gives the song its bittersweet quality. The buffalo, of course, are gone, as is the city that was "the border of the sprawling frontier." But Cohen hops the rails, as Whitman hits the highway in "Song of the Open Road," to "inhale great draughts of space ... to know the universe itself as a road - as many roads - as roads for traveling souls."

In the end, the roads Cohen travels in "Moments of Grace" offer a hint of salvation just around the bend. "I have a reason to believe we all will be received in Graceland," Paul Simon wrote, heading down the Mississippi to Memphis. Mark Cohen, in a different time and a different place, puts it this way in "Moments of Grace": "On the road in each direction, perfection awaits, it's true/Moments of grace for you/Moments, moments of grace."

"Moments of Grace" belongs in every collection. Redemptive, yes. But after September 11, I'll take it.

Robert Goldblum
New York City
- Blazer Communications


Discography

Mark Cohen - Discography:

Fare Well, Traveller (LP)– Folkways Records

Plutonium (LP)– Folkways Records

Moments of Grace (cd) – Street Scenes Music

Here On Earth (cd) – Street Scenes Music

Live at the Towne Crier (dvd) - opening for Richie Havens on the 39th Woodstock Anniversary Concert

Cohen also played guitar behind Sis Cunningham on Sundown, her Folkways Records album. Sis was one of the original Almanac Singers, with Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, Millar Lampell, and others, such as Josh White and Leadbelly, who played on occasion with this historic, seminal folk group. Sis and her husband, Gordan Friesen, also founded and were the publishers of “Broadside Magazine,” in which were published the earliest songs of Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Tom Paxton, Buffy St. Marie, Arlo Guthrie, and scores of other songwriters.

All the releases of Mark Cohen and Cohen and The Spirits have received air play across the U.S. and worldwide.

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Bio

Mark Cohen

Cohen and The Spirits
Cohen's first band was "The Ingredients of Love," a twelve-piece soul group in which he played funky rhythm guitar. Based in Brooklyn's famed Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, the band included four singers, one of whom, now Bishop Albert Jamison, is chairman of the Gospel Music Workshop of America.

Two-time Grammy winner Tyrone Williams was one of the Ingredients of Love, as was Michael Jones, now known as Kashif, who went on to produce Kenny G, Dionne Warwick, and Whitney Houston, among others. Formed by Robert Wedlaw, "The Ingredients of Love," a formative experience for each of its members, played colleges and New York clubs and theaters, including the Apollo, the Lloyd Price Turntable, and the Peppermint Lounge.

After travelling through Europe and living in Greece, Cohen returned to the states and became a denizen of the Greenwich Village music scene. Mark recorded two albums for Folkways Records. The Walrus, a trade publication, called Cohen "a valuable find," saying "his debut album, ‘Fare Well, Traveller,' whets the appetite for more."

Mark's albums received play across America and overseas.

Mark played in numerous concerts and radio broadcasts, appearing with Phil Ochs, Willie Nile, Steve Forbert, Pete Seeger, Tom Paxton, the Roches, Phoebe Snow, and Richard Lewis, among others, and was hailed as a "recent discovery" by Broadside Magazine.

"Moments of Grace," was co-produced with arranger and lead guitar player Jim Satten, and with a band that includes Rusty Cloud on keyboards, Connie Harvey, Leslie Hughes, Bil Kurz and Darryl Perreti doing backup vocals, Kevin Jenkins on bass, Tommy Price and Cliff Hackford on drums, and Dan Cipriano and Michael Blake on sax. Other musicians contributed tracks on the sessions.

Jim Satten (guitars) was Bo Diddley's music director and guitar player. He's played guitar behind Ron Woods of the Rolling Stones, Eddie Kendricks of the Temptations, Ben E. King, Chuck Berry, Wilson Pickett, Jerry Lee Lewis and other greats.

Rusty Cloud (keyboards) was keyboard player for Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, and backed up the Blue Brothers, Aretha Franklin, Bo Diddley, and numerous other artists.

Cliff Hackford (drums and other percussion) played behind Vicki Sue Robinson, Sam the Sham, The Shirelles and numerous reggae artists including Pablo Moses and Augustine Pablo.

Dan Cipriano (sax) was a regular sax player behind Wilson Pickett, and has played with the Allman Brothers, Michael Bolton, Southside Johnny, Phoebe Snow, Ben E. King, NRBQ, The Tokens, The Shirelles, The Chiffons, and The Coasters.

Connie Harvey (backup vocals) is one of The Chiffons. Connie has also recorded her own Gospel CD and sung backup vocals with Teddy Pendergrast and other artists.