Michael J Mand

Host/producer, St. James Infirmary music podcast


"The music of Mark Cohen/Cohen and The Spirits is a prime example of why folk music is essential in a world so much of which has become self-centered and uncharitable.  Cohen sings as our conscience.  He's earned that right; he's been around.  On Cohen and The Spirits SILVER STAR, he sings of hidden dangers in Enemies, of someone's callousness that boomerangs in It's Them And Not Me, of environmental perils in Plutonium, and of a special love in Precious.  In Thank You, Bob, Mark wrote what will undoubtedly become an iconic song for Bob Dylan.  And to top it all, as evidenced by the title track, Cohen knows as well as anyone that you can never go wrong with a train song.  Through the years I've included Cohen's songs in sets with John Lennon and Ringo Starr, Phil Ochs and Bruce Springsteen, Pete Seeger and Steve Goodman - all perfect fits.  Played with a rocking band, SILVER STAR is a light for our times."


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 a 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, "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 written 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 backed Aretha Franklin; drummer Cliff Hackford played behind the Shirelles and Sam the Sham, and Connie Harvey, on backup vocals, is one of original Chiffons and recorded her own Gospel cd, “If He Did It For Me.”  

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 Cohen wrote the song 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 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 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.  And after September 11, I'll take it.

Robert Goldblum, New York City, 2005

Moments of Grace


A New CD by Cohen and The Spirits

by Michael Lydon

Moments of Grace is  well-named - a sensitive collection of fine songs, all suggestive of the evanescent sweetness of life and love, and all by Mark Cohen, a songwriter whose roots reach back to the vibrant Greenwich Village music scene and to the soul group that was his first band.

Cohen, a curly-headed sprite with a big warm smile, played Folk City on those days, put out two albums on Folkways Records (now collector's items), and swapped songs with mentors and friends including Phil Ochs, Willie Nile, and other MacDougal Alley irregulars.

Through the years, Cohen, like many of his pals - those who survived! - kept his music alive.  The result is Moments of Grace, an album in which every track is  infused by the strength of Cohen's love of music and all he's learned through the decades.  This is an album rich in gorgeous sounds - superb lead guitar by Jim Satten and beautiful piano figures by Rusty Cloud - and rich in insights.

Moments of Grace has a classy production quality, the synths, guitars, piano and drums creating a fresh sounding blend.  The textures of the tunes are pleasing, melodic and varied, with good arrangements that build from solo guitar and small groups to big ensembles and choruses of background vocalists.  Cohen's distinctive and unusual voice puts his lyrics across with a subtle but passionate clarity.

The songs are a mixed bag, love songs mostly - Just One Night the best song to my ears, with its smooth pop feel and sing-a-long nice hook - but Cohen also includes a  rocking tribute to the Indianapolis 500.  Kosovo tells a haunting tale of human cruelty; Mark's true-toned voice conveys the heart of war's horror, seen unflinchingly and with an understanding equal to the tragedy.

MacDougal Street catches the flavor of Dylan's early rock albums, and Cohen's lyric overflows with the vibes of al the street's great music. Buffalo is a road song that at once recalls this part of America and Mark's own journey.  The closer, Wildwood Flower, is the only instrumental and, I almost said, the only non-original, but Cohen's atmospheric guitar arrangement is so tasteful and lovely that it made the old mountain song new again.

As I listen again and then again I'm glad to sit back and enjoy the sounds of Moments of Grace.  Mark Cohen brings together a world's soulful feelings mixed with a hard-won maturity, and wraps them up in a tight, modern musical production that is pleasing to the ear and soothing to the soul.  Older listeners will hear something new, yet familiar.  For younger listeners, Moments of Grace will open a whole realm of possibilities.

Michael Lydon is a founding editor of Rolling Stone Magazine and author of "Rock Folk" (Citadel Press) and "Ray Charles: Man and Music" (Riverhead Books).

on Moments of Grace


Cohen and The Spirits singer/songwriter rock CD, "Moments of Grace", winds through 8 tracks of solid lyrical content, melody, and performance, before launching into an instrumental called, "Wildwood Flower".  The track, a 13-minute tune of travis style effected fingerpicking, is a captured intimate moment from a passionate guitarist.  It concludes the album like an after-dinner dessert as it moves trough changed timbres, modes, and dialed-in choruses, flanges, and delays. 

The main course here is atypical.  Cohen's voice reminds us of Stephen Bishop, a vulnerable tenor, while his writing has a pop/folk flavor in its rock base.  In his tune "You'll Always Be With Me", Cohen sings, 'like the hands of time caressing what's to be, like a quiet night that sneaks in silently, you'll always be with me' as a tribute to love and sudden unexpected loss.  In "Patterns", Cohen writes of the cyclical nature of life, 'patterns keep repeating, now they're here, now they're fleeting'.  The tune has a perpetual revolving nature to it, much like the content. 

Track 6, "Buffalo", begins with Cohen wah wah'ing his way into an inspired folk-based tune that reminds us a bit of Bruce.  In this tribute to the northeastern city of Buffalo, he sings, 'I wonder as I watch the river flow, is it snowing in Buffalo'. 

Track 8, "Just One Night", has a chorus hook that is hard to forget as Cohen pays homage to an evening of unforgettable experiences.  He sings, 'we rode the starlit breakers, the midnight scarlet flame, the moonlit constellations, now we'll never be the same'. 

"Moments of Grace - a poetic and endearing CD.