Marc Cohn at the Cal Poly PAC

November 12, 2011

Marc Cohn


For singer/songwriters, live performances must be a dicey proposition. After all it’s just you and the audience with no booming drum solos, light shows or other fancy pyrotechnics to distract the masses. And concertgoers are usually there to engage and listen unlike many shows where P-A-R-T-Y is the operative word.

Now, that can be a good thing if you have a compelling artist, great songs, interesting stories and an intimate venue to hold your attention. Sunday night at the PAC, Marc Cohn gave us a taste but ultimately failed to make this performance a very memorable one.

The obviously talented pianist/guitarist singer reminds you of a more soulful, bluesy Billy Joel. And backed by guitar virtuoso and 15-year tour compatriot Shane Fontayne, Cleveland-born Cohn held court for about 90 minutes before a sparse Cohan Center crowd, mixing in lots of stories and humorous anecdotes in between songs.

But that was part of the problem. Other than his big hits “Walking in Memphis,” “Ghost Train” and “True Companion,” all from his debut album 20 years ago, Cohn’s melodies and lyrics are not real strong.

While he amused everyone with his excellent storytelling and self-deprecating personality, his songs never really resonated or connected with the crowd.

About halfway through the show, I got the feeling that Cohn had lost his muse somewhat so it makes senses that his latest effort, “Listening Booth 1970,” is a series classic tracks from that year that he covers and rearranges. So other than “Memphis,” the highlight of the night were his renditions of “The Letter” and Van Morrison’s special “Into the Mystic.”

But his recent tunes fell flat and by alternating between acoustic guitar and piano, the latter is where he clearly shines, the Grammy-winning Cohn kept losing any mojo he had started to gain. It didn’t help that the cathedral-like PAC looked ghostly with a sparse crowd of maybe 400. I don’t understand why Cal Poly Arts staff didn’t move him to the more cozy Spanos Theater where fellow bluesman Mose Allison played last spring. Big mistake.

Plus starting a show at 7 pm is way too early, even on a school night. And it didn’t help that Cohn barely played for an hour and a half, especially being armed with several classic tunes that he just recorded on his latest release. A night of music that ends by 8:30 just doesn’t give patrons the warm and fuzzies. And that’s what touring artists need to understand: we are not just fans but also customers who deserve our monies worth.

I know this wasn’t AC/DC but the bottom line is that any genre of music played live that lacks an air of excitement and anticipation is going to leave the audience disappointed, making them more likely to pop in the DVD and stay on the sofa next time the show rolls into town.

In a small market like SLO, that’s a bad sign for an already shaky concert scene.