Judge Gordon Sullivan might even see Leonard Cohen in person if he swings by again.
"There ain't no cure for love."
Late in 2008 I paid sixty bucks and drove five hours to see Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds in Washington, D.C. It was easily one of the best shows I've ever seen and set a gold standard for concerts to follow. The next day I decided that sixty dollars and five hours was going to be my limit on how much a concert would put me out, because it's highly unlikely that anything else could give quite as much bang for the buck as Nick Cave did that night. Much to my dismay, when Leonard Cohen announced his first tour of North America in fifteen years, the cheapest tickets at the venue closest to me (also in the Washington, D.C. area) were eighty dollars. I just couldn't bring myself to see the master of intimacy, Leonard Cohen, at an outdoor pavilion for eighty dollars a ticket. Because of this, I was overjoyed when the DVD Leonard Cohen: Live in London was announced. Though not as exquisite as seeing the man live, this DVD offers compelling evidence that Leonard Cohen still matters.
Facts of the Case
Musicians' loss is often fans' gains. Divorce has given us some of the best music of the twentieth century, touring is a monstrous hardship that gives us live music; sometimes managers run off with an artist's nest egg, forcing the artists out of retirement to become financially solvent. The latter happened to Leonard Cohen, and it forced the 73-year-old Canadian bard to embark on his first tour in over a decade. In 2008 most of his dates were confined to Europe, and 2009 saw him hit American shores, bringing his unique blend of music and poetry. The Live in London DVD is taken from a show on July 17th at London's O2 arena. The show, which runs over two hours long, is split into two sets:
I've been listening to Leonard Cohen most of my life, and yet this DVD reminded me of several things that I'd forgotten about this talented singer-songwriter:
• Cohen is not a poet of sorrow. Yes, many of his songs are about leaving, breaking up, or tragedy, but Cohen himself is never po-faced about. He doesn't revel in sadness for its own sake. Instead, he uses all experience, good and bad, as grist for the mill of poetry. This is especially evident on this DVD. As Cohen sings we can see the joy he brings to even the saddest songs, the way his phrasing shows relish for the words he's polished over the years. His work is really a lesson in perseverance. Listening to it, and especially watching him perform it, shows that beauty can be wrested from the most tragic of circumstances. Cohen also exhibits a joy in performance that few artists, no matter their age, can match. He literally bounds on stage and appears happy to be there for every moment in the spotlight. In fact, watching this disc, it's amazing that he could stay so long away from performance.
• Cohen is an ensemble player. Because of the sparse, guitar-based arrangements of his early work and the increasing reliance on synthesizers as he grew older, it's easy to imagine Cohen as a solitary figure on stage, with only a guitar to keep him company. That image couldn't be more untrue. Joining Cohen for this show are six amazingly talented musicians and three female backup vocalists. However, more important than the musicians' presence is Cohen's interaction with them. These players are not faceless studio-drones who slickly reproduce Cohen's melodies. Instead, there's a give and take between Cohen and his band mates that results in some fantastically improvised musical moments. Also, one need only see one shot of Cohen looking paternally at multi-intrumentalist Javier Mas to know that he values the input of those he shares the stage with.
• Cohen seems genuinely humble. I don't know if it comes out of his early shyness or the time he spent in a Zen monastery, but Cohen is remarkably humble. His entire performance acknowledges just how much he owes the audience for listening to his music, and he's happy to return their attention by playing an assortment of his best work from his four decades of recording. However, this is not a slavish, Vegas-style recreation of Cohen's albums. All of his work has been translated into the new context of his band, so that some of his early, more spare songs get a fuller treatment with organ and electric guitar, while some of his later, synth-heavy songs get a more organic treatment with Javier's aud or twelve-string guitar. The performance manages to honor both Cohen's musical past, as well as his continuing evolution as an artist without ever coming off as pretentious.
• Cohen still has it. Although he can't quite hit all the notes in "Bird On a Wire" anymore, his range is still remarkable. Also, whatever he lacks in range is made up for by the total gravitas he brings to each of his compositions. Lyrics generally remain unchanged on this release, but what changes are made are for the better. His version of "Hallelujah" also blows away all the covers that have proliferated in recent decades.
This release from Sony is generally up to snuff as a concert DVD. The camerawork on the concert itself is generally unobtrusive, and the video transfer does a decent job with the material. There isn't quite as much detail as I'd like, and the whole presentation begs for high-def. Although the video was merely passable, the audio does an excellent job with Cohen's music. The low end has a satisfying thump, while the high end remains clear and hiss free. It's miles above any of the fan-recorded versions I've heard of this tour. Extras, however, are lacking. We get clickable song lyrics on the DVD, which is a nice touch for an artist so lyrically gifted as Cohen, but aside from a short essay in the liner notes, that's all. I would have loved to hear from Cohen himself about coming back to touring after so long, and interviews with his musical collaborators (especially Mas and singer Sharon Robinson). However, these are minor quibbles in the fact of two-and-a-half hours of Cohen's music.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I could wax ecstatic about Cohen and this release into next year, but there are a few things that I find wrong with this disc. The first is the lack of subtitles. The included lyrics are nice, but I'd love to read along with Cohen sometimes to appreciate the beauty of his words as he sings them. Also, he does a fair bit of speaking during his sets, and although he's not difficult to understand, subtitles would be nice.
I've never been a huge fan of Cohen's use of female backup singers. Here they occasionally sound flat and a bit faceless. It's not a constant annoyance, but I would have been fine without them.
Since I'm picking nits, the only serious hole in this disc's set list is the missing "Famous Blue Raincoat." That's the only song I can think of immediately that I would want but isn't here. Again, considering the wealth of music on display, this is a minor concern.
If you're not a fan of Leonard Cohen, this release won't change your mind, but if you have any appreciation for his later work (once his voice went low and smoky), then this release is the next best thing to seeing the man himself when he comes through your town. Although it's not the most comprehensive package ever released, this DVD from Sony does an excellent job presenting this remarkable concert.
Not guilty. Hallelujah.
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