“Let’s try to get through this before the snow,” Marc Cohn deadpanned to the audience as he sat down at his piano last night. Everyone laughed: No one at Bergen PAC was in any hurry — except maybe management.
It was 10 years ago that Cohn’s debut album spawned the hit “Walking in Memphis.” And it was five years ago, while on tour with his current opener, Suzanne Vega, that he was shot in the head during a carjacking.
Although grateful that he’s alive, Cohn doesn’t talk about his narrow escape. But it comes through in his music, in his smooth and perfect command, in the way he made the Englewood theater feel much smaller than it is, more like a living room, whether he was at the keys or playing his guitar.
His voice is distinctive, though if you listen closely you might hear shades of Marc Knopfler. His tastes are eclectic, although grounded in the gamut of popular music that dominated 60s and 70s radio.
Cohn, in fact, is planning to release a tribute album of sorts in May, called “Listening Booth: 1970.”
And although he didn’t want to disclose the entire setlist, he did play “Wild World” (from Cat Stevens’s “Tea for the Tillerman”) and CCR’s “Long As I Can See the Light” (from “Cosmo’s Factory”), both recorded 40 years ago. His falsetto was gorgeous on the latter.
He also spoke fondly of a chance meeting in a department store with Paul Simon, whose partnership with Art Garfunkel ended in 1970 — the same year that John, Paul and George released solo albums that many still consider their best.
Late in the set, Cohn slid into a slow and sexy rendition of Alex Chilton & the Box Top’s “The Letter.” He explained how he approached the covers, taking down the tempos of the rockers and grooving the slow tunes.
As much as he brought me back, Cohn also provided an evening of discovery, first with “Perfect Love,” then later with “29 Ways” and “Levon,” a tribute to The Band’s drummer.
Cohn egged on the crowd to call out requests, and they obliged. Soon it was time for fan-favorite “Walking in Memphis” to close the regular set.
He came back to talk about his love for recording, how long it takes to get just a dozen songs in perfect shape. So he decided to reach back 40 years, to a different time, when songwriting was considered more of an art.
After “True Companion,” his own, Cohn closed the show with “Wild World” — at once an acknowledgement of peril and an embrace of innocence.
Speaking of innocence, Vega opened her set with “Marlene On The Wall,” wasting no time pulling the audience in. She, too, has a new CD, a remix of older tunes on her own record label.
She did her new version of “Caramel,” and told a cute story about how she was playing the song at home in a jazz style, snapping her fingers, when her husband came in and told her what a great song it was — except for the finger poppin.’
Moving flawlessly from song to song, Vega created a listening trance when, before I knew it: “Luka.” Then a jazzed-up rendition of “Tom’s Diner” that gave me chills. Then she was gone.