Friday, November 26, 2010

Music: Leonard Cohen

ME Bank Stadium, Perth
24 November, 2010

Let's sing another song, boys
Leonard Cohen has pulled off the greatest conjuring trick in music; at the age of 76, he's become an international stadium act with a legion of fans world-wide.
I'm unashamedly one of them - have been since 1971, but it was still a shock to sit in a $200 seat 100m from a vast stage with an enormous crowd around me, waiting for an artist I’d spent long hours listening to, convinced that I was part of a tiny cult that, surely, would never extend beyond me, my sad friends, and unknown like-minded misfits light years from any mainstream.
On reflection, maybe he made us all his misfits; maybe it was only when we stepped into that avalanche of his that we felt so singular and so comforted.
It’s impossible to exaggerate the effect of those early Leonard Cohen albums ("early" is, of course, like many things about Cohen, a misnomer, because he released them at the back end of his 30s). From Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967) to New Skins for the Old Ceremony (1974), he launched an extraordinary barrage of poetic ballads with their intimations of Brel and Garcia Lorca that literally swept us away.
You just turned your back on the crowd: Leonard Cohen plays Perth
It’s those early songs that are closest to his core, rather than his later, much admired and endlessly covered hits like Hallelujah, First We Take Manhattan and Tower of Song, for all their quality. There can be only a handful of songwriters who wouldn't be happy to have his output from 1977's Death of a Ladies' Man on as their repertoire.
He was generous with material from that great period: a run of Suzanne, Avalanche and Sisters of Mercy early in the second part of the three-hour-plus concert set the mood for a spellbinding run to its three encores.
The rest of the set was sprinkled with his early masterpieces: Bird on the Wire, Who by Fire, Chelsea Hotel #2, So Long Marianne. Best of all, there were the exquisite Famous Blue Raincoat and The Partisan, with its mighty confluence of the horrors of Auden and the defiant optimism of Theodorakis.
And yet there were 10 more canonical songs from those albums that would have been highlights had they made the cut, among them The Story of Isaac, Last Year’s Man, Love Calls You by Your Name, Joan of Arc, Take This Longing and the Kafka-esque Singer Must Die.
Death of a Man's Lady
Apart from their qualities as poetry and music, it’s the intellectual and historical sense of Old Europe these songs give to Cohen’s work that sets it apart. The only other artist in rock who’s attempted anything like it is John Cale in his fabulous run of mid-70s albums, from Paris 1919 on (and it's unsurprising that Cale’s “original” cover of Hallelujah remains easily its most convincing). 
Inevitably, much of this gets lost in the middle of a stadium spectacular, but when a lyric like “You'll see a woman hanging upside down/
Her features covered by her fallen gown” (in The Future) suddenly brings to mind an image of Clara Petacci on the gibbet in Milan, something very out of the ordinary is going on.
The technical quality of the show was impeccable. A perfect sound allowed the work of fine performers to shine, like the sublime Catalan bandurria player Javier Mas and the wind instrumentalist Dino Soldo, whose work on sax and wind synths was reminiscent of Michael Brecker’s fabulous stand with Paul Simon here in ’93. The Webb Sisters lacked the cut and thrust of some of Cohen’s famous back-up singers, but they worked through their stuff prettily and made a good fist of their star turn, the gorgeous choral standard-to-be, If It Be Your Will.
Cohen himself was gracious and sprightly and, because neither he nor his golden voice was ever young and hot, his extreme maturity as a performer is natural and charming. He wears his clothes, his hat and his skin well, and sometimes, especially on one or two of his “funkier” songs, he reminded me of an all-grown-up Brian Ferry, complete with that little walking-on-the-spot shimmy of his. And that’s something I never thought I’d get to say!
Cohen's recent, unfortunate financial setback has sent him back on the road, and he is clearly grateful that an audience is still there for him when he needs it - though he could hardly have anticipated the scale of his late popularity. That gratitude is an emotion that I, and many others, happily return to him in spades.

The great Ray Purvis was there as well; here's his take in The West Australian

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