In concert and at soundcheck: the great man revisits songs less explored, adding two new ones
Another live album a mere five months after the epic, three-hour Live In Dublin seems to be stretching the loyalty even of Cohen’s army of devoted fans. What is left to add to that career-spanning selection? More than one might expect; a brace of unexpected covers, a further brace of new songs and a six-pack of lesser celebrated numbers from Cohen’s sprawling repertoire, some of the performances drawn from soundchecks that are described as ‘a concert before the concert’.
It is, as the title promises, a fine souvenir from the magnificent, unexpected third act of Cohen’s prodigious career, one that has seen him play to larger and more diverse audiences than he ever managed in earlier days. Here Len and fedora are stalking the boards in New Zealand, Germany, Australia, Ireland and Scandinavia, as well as the US and his Canadian homeland. Wherever Len lays his hat, however, it’s always the same Grand Tour, and the evenness of the performances here is striking. The group and backing singers purr along, leaving Cohen to emote in a voice that can be grating or soothing, commanding or apologetic.
Why does the world love Leonard Cohen? There’s the charm that few in showbiz can equal, of course (maybe Tony Bennett), but also because he takes us into complex and sometimes unfamiliar emotional landscapes. Who else would write a dialogue between Joan of Arc and the fire that consumed her at the stake in 1431? Is the song about misguided martyrdom, suppressed eroticism or the cruelty of desire? All and more. Here Cohen emotes with tenderness – it’s almost a spoken poem – while singer Hattie Webb takes the part of tormented Joan, who at this last moment wishes she’d given up her crusade for marriage. A klezmer fiddle adds sweetness while her imagined wedding dress is consumed in flames. It’s no easy ride for her, for the fire, or for us, the onlookers.
The metaphysics and conflicts of “Joan Of Arc” might seem a country mile from the late George Jones’ “Choices”, with its everyman’s assurance that “I hear voices that tell me right from wrong” (which was Joan’s problem), but the number slots neatly into Cohen’s contemplative, retrospective terrain. At the other end of the emotional spectrum is “La Manic” by the Quebec chansonnier Georges Dor, a song that Cohen has carried with him since it became a Canuck sensation in 1966, and which he praised in his acceptance speech at his 2006 induction into the Canadian Songwriters Hall Of Fame. It isn’t, however, a song that crosses borders easily; though sentiments like “What do your silken forehead and velvet eyes become when I am not there?” sound better in French, even the version spoken in Canada. Leonard delivers its rapid-fire romantic declarations and despair with suitably Gallic passion, his vocal more animated than for his own material. For the Quebec rehearsal audience, its delivery was clearly A Moment.
“Field Commander Cohen” is the oldest song on the album (from 1974), and you can see why it’s performed so infrequently, its tumble of imagery – Fidel Castro, diplomatic cocktail parties, singing millionaires – too cryptic to absorb easily, or for Cohen’s more limited vocal powers to fully animate. He fares better on “Night Comes On”, slow and mournful in its original form and little changed here. A crawl through the torments of conscience and the inescapable bonds of ancestry, it manages, too, to be a love song ending with a visit to Bill’s Bar. “Can’t Forget” likewise sounds like its original (1988) incarnation, with Cohen’s baritone running smoothly as he grapples with motives he doesn’t fully understand. It’s a prickly love song – literally, so with its image of Len showing up at an ex’s home “with a bouquet of cactus”.
“Light As A Breeze”, from The Future, is even more barbed, a paean to a lover “who looks so graceful/And your heart’s hard and hateful.” It’s Cohen’s contradictions, his ability to hold opposing emotions in balance, that keep you on your toes. Of the two new songs “Never Gave Nobody Trouble” is an uncharacteristic foray into blues, cast in the silky nocturnal style of BB King (guitarist Mitch Watkins is clearly a fan). It’s a sly little piece, with Cohen claiming he’s never caused any bother, honest, before growling, “But it ain’t too late to start.” The other new number – sort of new since Leonard has featured it in shows for at least two years – is “Got A Little Secret”, another soul-tinged piece with a choogling Memphis organ, where Cohen confesses he’s unable to hold a woman he admires because he’s “got a full-length mirror and it ain’t a pretty sight.”
There’s more self-deprecatory references to his advancing years on the closing “Stages”, which is a droll rap about life’s sometimes cruel changes before it turns into “Tower Of Song” and fades, leaving one slightly unfulfilled. Maybe that was the intention. Always keep ’em wanting more. And we do Len, we do.