Thursday, January 10, 2019

CD Odyssey Disc 1216: Leonard Cohen

After a fairly good run of not succumbing to new music I recently broke down and bought three new albums. These were: Lori McKenna “The Tree”; Parcels "Self-Titled"; and The Weepies "Say I Am You". In addition my friend Chris gave me his copy of Jethro Tull’s 1987 album “Crest of a Knave” which was damned nice of him. All around, a good week of music.

Disc 1216 is… Cohen Live: Leonard Cohen in Concert
Artist: Leonard Cohen

Year of Release: 1994 with performances from tours in 1988 and 1993

What’s up with the Cover? It looks like someone tried to get creative with early nineties graphic design software, before realizing the limitations of their medium. The cover also features the logos from Cohen’s “I’m Your Man” tour and “The Future” tour down the side, signifying the two eras the live performances are drawn from.

How I Came To Know It: In the case of the album, I was there! Or at least I was at one of the venues (the Orpheum in Vancouver in 1993). My friend Jeff bought me a ticket. I have since lost touch with Jeff, which is one of my life’s regrets. He was a kind and generous friend.

As for Leonard Cohen, you can read just how important his music and poetry have been in my life back on my review for “You Want It Darker” (Disc 937), which I wrote in November of 2016, shortly after his death. I miss you every day, Leonard.

How It Stacks Up:  Live albums don’t stack up, except against other live albums by the same artist, so the answer to your question is mu. Unask it!

Ratings:  4 stars

Leonard Cohen’s live performances cast a spell over his audience every time he stepped on the stage. I have a DVD of him at the Isle of Wight in 1970 quelling an enraged and drug and alcohol fueled crowd with nothing more than a lighter. Even late in life, he awed concert goers with his reverent and immersive style. I saw him in 2009 and 2010 where, old to the brink of frailty, the power of his own poetry would drop him to his knees on the stage.

In 1993 his physical intensity was limited to a deep knee bend, but that tour will always sit foremost in my heart. At age 58 Cohen had over 25 years’ worth of material to draw on with all the energy he needed to deliver a quality vocal performance.

I didn’t appreciate live music when I was young like I do now. Back then I preferred the perfection of the studio to the unknown and unpredictable sound quality of the live venue. Also, I was equal parts broke and depressed, and generally found it hard to motivate to do more than go to a nightclub and look for a temporary conquest.

But then my friend Jeff showed up, as he always did when I needed him most, two tickets to Leonard Cohen, live at Vancouver’s Orpheum theatre in his hand. It was exactly what I needed to give my spirit a lift.

Since this is a review of a live album and not a concert, I’ll be brief and just say that this was one of the top three concerts I have ever seen; a mystical experience that I will never forget. The sound was exceptional, the audience (aged 20 through 50) wholly engaged and enthralled, and hanging off of every word Cohen spoke or sang.

A highlight was when Cohen sang “Waiting for the Miracle”. When he reached the line “baby, let’s get married” he was interrupted with the shriek of about half a dozen college aged women screaming their enthusiastic support for the notion. He paused, and then impishly noted the age gap, saying in his gravel wine-damaged voice, “aah, my children have come home.” When he started the line again and they again interrupted him he stood stock still, head cocked until there was absolute silence at which point he laid it on us, spoken word style:

It is comforting to know that some ideas are so powerful…they do not diminish with repetition.

He had those girls in the palm of his hand, and he had that me and that entire audience in the palm of his hands as well.

“Cohen Live” features two songs recorded at that show, “Everybody Knows” and “Suzanne,” which was performed during one of the encores. There were two or three encores at that show and at one of them I remember Cohen sang “I Tried To Leave You” to a mix of appreciation and mirth from the audience. Sadly, this song didn’t make the cut for this particular collection.

While no other songs on “Cohen Live” feature me on the clap-track, it is still just as majestic. He updates every song either with a new phrasing, an extra word here or there and sometimes – as is the case for “Hallelujah” – entirely new lyrics. “Hallelujah” has been woefully over-covered in the years since 1993, but back then it was fresh and real and powerful and the performance on “Cohen Live” continues to be one of the greatest renditions I’ve heard, by Cohen or anyone else.

If I am being honest, there are times on the record when Cohen oversteps in rephrasing a line’s delivery, but if you know the studio versions of these songs well you don’t mind. It just makes the performance fresh and visceral, even on multiple listens.

The album also features a jazzed up version of “There is a War” with a totally different feel than the studio version, and just as powerful. The song reminds you that there is always something worth taking a stand for, and it also reminds me that Cohen was never done experimenting with music, whether he was writing new songs or finding new ways to reinterpret his old masterpieces.

It is wonderful to hear Cohen sing “Joan of Arc” live as a duet, where Joan gets a woman’s vocal for her parts. This is one of Perla Batalla or Julie Christensen. I am embarrassed that I can’t remember which but it doesn’t matter; they are both great and add texture, depth and emotional resonance to this song and every other one besides.

It isn’t just Batalla and Christensen either. Every show I’ve seen Cohen play has featured incredible musicians. He graciously gives them a moment to shine, politely tells the crowd their name, complete with honorific (“Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Paul Ostermayer”) and carries on with the song in perfect time.

“Cohen Live” is a great record, and it is even greater for me because of the emotional resonance it holds. I saw Cohen again the very next day at the Royal Theatre in Victoria. Same tour, although I think it was a slightly altered set-list. Or maybe that is just the romantic in me, remembering it that way. That would be appropriate, as Cohen has always stirred the romantic in me, and always will.

Best tracks: I love all these tracks, so I have selected this list as ones that stood for helping me to see old songs in a new light: Everybody Knows, Joan of Arc, There is a War, Hallelujah, Who By Fire, Heart With No Companion

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