I have to admit the first time I head Leonard Cohen I didn't get it. Of course I was all of thirteen years old at the time and was much more into electric guitars and noise than the quiet introspection Leonard had to offer. Thankfully I matured and learned there was more to life than I had previously thought and his music and poetry started to make much sense to me. Since then I have dipped into his work periodically, and like a warm bath that eases aching muscles its always been a much needed balm to my soul.
So when I heard that Sony Music was releasing a DVD of Cohen's most recent tour I was thrilled, for even though I'll be seeing him in concert next month (May 2009), having a permanent record of the event that I can access whenever I need rejuvenation was just too good an opportunity to pass up. If Leonard Cohen Live In London managed to capture a small percentage of what the man has to offer as a poet and a performer I would have been content. As it is, I don't think I've ever seen a concert movie capture the essence of a performer and their material as completely as this one did with Leonard Cohen.
From the moment Cohen bounded on stage (it's hard to believe he's seventy-five years old) to the closing notes of the finale twenty-five songs later, I've never felt closer to a performer while watching him or her on film as I did during this DVD. With the improvements in technology it's nothing new for cameras to be up on stage with the performers capturing the most intimate details of their performance as was the case with this recording. However, whereas in the past it's always felt as if there was a barrier between me and the performers no matter how close the cameras were able to shoot, this time it felt like Cohen and his band members would turn and address you personally at any moment.
Of course a great deal of that sensation was created by Cohen himself. Not once did I have the feeling that he was performing with a capital "P", or was anybody but who he is all the time. How often have you seen someone screw up their face or contort their body while performing as an indication that they are in the throws of some emotional turmoil? There's no such histrionics in Cohen's performance. Instead, we are treated to the sight of someone allowing their material to speak for itself. If a song's tempo increased, or his voice rose in volume, it always felt as though there was no other way for it to be presented. It was if he and his band were merely the conduit which allowed the needs of the material to be met, and they were secondary to the performance.
The concert has something for every generation of Cohen fans as it includes songs dating back as far as "Suzanne" from 1967's Songs Of Leonard Cohen through to "In My Secret Life" from 2001's Ten New Songs and stops in every decade in between. While of course there will be some disappointment at favourite songs being left out of the set list ("Famous Blue Raincoat" and "Joan of Arc" are two I missed most), its a remarkably satisfying retrospective of Cohen's career. Even better was the fact that Cohen and his band found ways to bring new life to the old material, like "So Long Marianne" and "Sisters Of Mercy", but without sacrificing anything of what made them special to begin with. As a result this isn't an attempt by an old performer to capture some of his former glory by cashing in on people's nostalgia for his former hits. Instead its like an art exhibit that gives viewers the opportunity to appreciate the body of work that an artist produced during his lifetime. The only difference being this artist is still alive and able to go back and touch up any of his masterpieces that otherwise might not have stood the test of time.
Cohen's work has always seemed more sophisticated than your average folk song and called out for more than just simple guitar accompaniment. On the other hand there has to be a delicate balance struck in order to ensure the music never overwhelms either the lyrics or Cohen's voice. Under the direction of musical director and basest Roscoe Beck the band featuring; Rafael Bernardo Gayol (drums & percussion), Neil Larsen (keyboards), Javier Mas (banduria, laud, archilaud, & twelve string guitar), Bob Metzger (lead guitar & pedal steel), Dino Soldo (wind instruments, harmonica, & keyboard), and background vocalists Sharon Robinson, Charley Webb, and Hattie Webb, couldn't have done a better job. Not only were each of them capable of individual virtuosity when called upon (Javier Mas' playing will make you weep), even when they soloed it never felt like they were putting themselves ahead of the material.
As for the man himself, he still has more personality and charisma in his little finger than any of the twenty-something pop stars on the charts could ever dream of. Not only did he bound on stage at the opening, but he came running back on for his second encore nearly three hours later. Cohen simply standing centre stage holding his microphone and singing exudes more energy than most others at their most frenetic, while his elegance and style redefine the word dapper.
Cohen's voice, that some call limited, is revealed as the perfect instrument for his material. Eloquent, without being grandiose or flashy, each word and phrase is carefully enunciated so the listener doesn't miss anything. Anyone who might have thought of Cohen's voice as monotone will be quickly disabused of that notion after seeing this performance as he shows an amazing ability to communicate emotions with only the slightest vocal inflection. Perhaps that's where any misconceptions about his voice arose in the past, as he doesn't need to resort to the cheap melodrama that others do in order to express himself.
Needless to say the sound and visuals on the disc are superlative with the camera work in specific being remarkable for the way it's able to create a sense of intimacy in spite of the size of the space where the performance was filmed and the number of people on stage. While there aren't any special features included with disc, they have included the lyrics to every song sung during the show.
Leonard Cohen Live In London is a brilliant concert film featuring one of the most erudite and intelligent performers to ever grace a pop music stage. This is Leonard Cohen at his best, and Leonard Cohen at his best is miles beyond anything that anyone else can even dream of accomplishing.
(Originally posted April 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.