A year on the road with Leonard Cohen, by his bandmates

Roscoe Beck and others remember touring with the singer-songwriter

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In this archive feature from December 2008 (Take 139), we get the inside story from Cohen’s bandmates on their extraordinary year with the singer-songwriter that even Bob Dylan calls “a real poet”. Interviews: Michael Bonner, Nick Hasted and John Lewis. Photograph: Lorca Cohen 

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THE REHEARSALS: STUDIO INSTRUMENT RENTALS, LOS ANGELES, FEBRUARY/MARCH, 2008

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Roscoe Beck [played on Cohen’s Recent Songs album in 1979; producer of Jennifer Warnes’ Famous Blue Raincoat album; bassist and musical director on the current tour]: Leonard called me at Thanksgiving and I flew out to LA and met with him. We started auditions for the band in January, and rehearsals in February. There were a lot of chord charts left over from the ’88/’93 touring band. Once the band was in place, Leonard would give guidance to the musicians, but he kinda sat back and said, “Let’s see what they come up with.”

We scheduled a lot of rehearsal time. Leonard cares about his music and he cares about the audience that’s going to hear it. When we were hiring, his only instructions to me were: “Rossie, I only want the best band on the road this year.” No pressure, then.

Sharon Robinson [back-up singer since 1979; co-writer on the 10 New Songs and Dear Heather albums]: I came in a month into the process, in March. Leonard was definitely adjusting to another mode of living. He’s somewhat of a perfectionist. That part of him takes over.

Roscoe Beck: Was Leonard rusty? No, I don’t think so. He’s a very modest man, and he claims that rehearsals were mostly for him. But I don’t buy that at all. He’d been practising guitar in advance of this and boning up on his own material. He was in good shape, musically as well as physically. He quit smoking five years ago, and mentally he was ready for this tour.

Anne Militello [lighting designer]: He was so involved in every aspect of the look – the drapes, the wardrobe of the band and even the clothing of the crew. They all had fedoras!

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Bruce Rodgers [set designer]: I wanted the feel of the set to be like him, subtle and silvery grey and translucent, mysterious and full of light at times, dark and moody at others. As far as the design and layout he was very involved, the master planner of the placement of all his band members. He wanted his musicians as close and intimate as possible.

Roscoe Beck: When we ran over the list of songs we just found that there was so much we couldn’t leave out. People told him concerts don’t run that long. His own children said, “Dad, concerts are like 90 minutes and then they’re gone!”

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