From the moment he ran onto the stage of Kingston's K-Rock Centre to the moment the last echoes of the sound of the band, crew, and him singing from the "Book Of Ruth" faded into applause and bows, Leonard Cohen held our hearts and souls in the palm of his hand last night (May 22nd/09). Normally I wouldn't feel either comfortable or safe surrendering that much of myself to anybody, but not only wasn't there much I could do about it in this instance, I doubt any of us gathered together last night could have been in safer or better hands. As a poet, singer, novelist and song writer, Cohen has always delved into deep emotional waters, but when you see him in concert he not only tells you about those experiences, he becomes your guide through them.
Cohen's first book of poetry, Let Us Compare Mythologies was published in 1956 and his first recording,Songs Of Leonard Cohen, was released in 1967, and since then has released twelve books, fourteen albums, and been in front of audiences almost continually either reading or singing his work. At seventy-five the one time enfant-terrible of Canadian poetry has evolved into a grand master/guru to whom people around the world now turn for their heart's easing and their soul's comfort. For where he was once perceived as dark and brooding, cut from the same cloth as Lord Byron and the Romantics of the nineteenth century, as his locks have greyed people have allowed themselves to see past the image they tried to create for him, and let his words and voice reach them instead.
Which is exactly what happened last night as Cohen performed songs from nearly his entire repertoire of recordings for an audience that clung to each word he said and every note that he and his band sang or played. Eager as a child and humble as a supplicant, Cohen stood before us with hat in hand (literally and figuratively) asking us to join him in celebrating something most of the world would have us deny - our emotions. He coaxed, teased, joked, and cajoled us into breaking down the walls the world builds around our hearts, while simultaneously providing the reassurance required to allow us to do so in public. Unlike those who would manipulate you with their music in order to make you react in a specific way, Cohen offered the audience the opportunity to feel whatever it was we needed in whatever amount we required.
Having just recently reviewed the DVD Leonard Cohen Live In London, a recording made earlier during this current tour, I was slightly worried that I would have spoiled the experience of seeing Cohen in concert for myself as he would most likely perform the same show here in Kingston as was recorded in London. While it's true that the majority of the material was the same, including the sequence in which they were performed and the patter between songs, the difference between even the best that modern technology has to offer and seeing Cohen perform live is immeasurable.
Aside from the fact that the experience of being amongst a crowd of people sharing the same excitement and pleasure of witnessing the performance can never be re-created, there were nuances of his performance that didn't show up on the DVD. No matter how good your sound system is, it will never be able to match hearing him sing or recite in person. I had no idea just how rich and deep his voice has become until I saw him last night. At times when he descended to the bottom of his register you could swear his voice was rising from the floor through the soles of your feet to make its way up into your body. Now I've been to concerts where the base has been so heavy that it's made your chest hurt from the pressure, but this wasn't the case as it was more like a caress than an assault like on other occasions.
Another difference is the fact that a camera is selective and you only see what it wants you to see, so on a recording you miss what's happening outside of its singular focus. I've no idea if they did this during the Live In London concert, but on this night during the singing of the lines "White girls dancing", his back up singers, The Webb Sisters, performed simultaneous backwards cartwheels, something which definitely didn't show up in the DVD footage. That was just one of many asides or moments that can only be experienced by seeing a live performance.
However, what it comes down to in the end is the music, and Cohen and his band on stage are even more impressive in person than they are on tape. You'd think that after months on the road performing the same songs over and over again they would reach the stage where the material becomes somewhat stale. Well, if it was the case, you couldn't tell it by the performance I saw last night as they attacked each song with a joy and enthusiasm that brought the audience to their feet time and time again. Songs like "Suzanne", "Bird On A Wire", "Famous Blue Raincoat", "Closing Time", and "Dance Me To The End Of Love", which audience members must have heard many a time before, sounded as fresh as if we were hearing them for the first time again.
Some concerts that you attend you may remember a song or two in particular as highlights, while others are just a blur of excitement and noise. However once in a while you are fortunate enough to be part of an experience. Last night watching Leonard Cohen was one of those occasions. There were moments when the impulse to surrender to the wash of emotions being generated by listening to the music was so great that it was impossible not to just sit back and close my eyes and let myself go. I haven't done drugs in over fifteen years, but nothing I ever took in the hopes of expanding my consciousness ever came close to matching the experience of riding on the waves generated by what was happening on stage last night.
Leonard Cohen is seventy-five now, so who knows how many more times he's going to be motivated to tour again. It's been fifteen years since his last tour, so there might not even be another. Don't miss the opportunity to see and experience him in concert as it will be unlike anything you've ever enjoyed before. Last night, May 22nd/2009, he was in Kingston Ontario changing a few thousands lives for the better, and his tour is continuing across North America and Europe for the rest of the year so you've still plenty of opportunities to see and hear him sing before this tour wraps up. In a world filled with mass produced and sterile products, a Leonard Cohen concert is a very unique and human experience that shouldn't be missed.
(Originally posted May 2009)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.