Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Leonard Cohen Live at the Rod Laver Arena, 2013

Leonard Cohen Live at the Rod Laver Arena, 2013
James WF Roberts

The house lights go down, purple, blue and red filters change slowly one the black curtain. A black clad figure moves across the stage, an old fedora and a pin-stripe suit.  The light catches his shadow like a predatory shadow in a noirish film. The fusion of jazz, blues, gypsy folk and modern balladry begins.
It is hard to review a live concert. I will say that from the get-go. It is like reviewing a football match, not from the comfort from a press box or the over-privileged   God’s view of the game from the commentary team. Sitting in the throng, the mass of people at Rod Laver arena, all in riotous chanting, applause and devotion to the craggy-faced, troubadour, the would-be self-styled prophet, Leonard Cohen.

The crowd is mostly middle-aged, or older. Very well dressed for a pop-concert. Trilby and fedora hats flood the hallway, when you are trying to line up for a beer.  For someone like me, still regarding himself as an emerging poet/writer and an amateur musician and would-be song-writer. It is a dream come true to see Mr. Cohen on stage. For 79 years old he is spritely, and charismatic. He jokes with the audiences, he bows in reverence, he crouches on his haunches, like in prayer and offers his benediction of song to the audience.  He is rather captivating to listen to and to watch.  Even though his standard and somewhat minimal vocal and range of movement is repetitive.  The first half of his first Melbourne show saw seamless transitions between songs – songs that we all know if you have ever gone to an open mic night or know a few singer-song writers, Cohen’s canon is almost as popular with emerging musicians as Lennon/McCartney songs.

Cohen’s electic style of writing and influences is echoed by the fusion of jazz, blues, gypsy folk, rock, pop and electronica. Cohen is flanked by some of the best musicians in the world, all experts and some professors in their field; bassist and musical director Roscoe Beck, guitarist Mitch Watkins, violinist Alexandru Bublitchi, keyboardist Neil Larsen (on Hammond organ), guitarist Javier Mas on Bandurria guitar, drummer Rafael Gaol and vocalists Sharon Robinson and Charley and Hattie Webb.

Cohen is a very generous performer. Generous with his audience and with his ensemble, many times throughout the show,  the Webb sisters and his long time song writing collaborator Sharon Robertson do their own solo work. He allows the spotlight to shine on the rest of the band, like no other solo artist I have seen. You get the feeling there is that gypsy/jazz sense of a wandering band of musicians on stage.
“Thanks friends for your warm welcome and those who have climbed the heights. Tonight we’ll give you everything we’ve got,” promises Cohen and he remains true to his word. On occasion, Cohen kneels towards the floor. During “Tower of Song,” the throng claps after his amateurish keyboard solo. “You must be kidding”, retorts Cohen. 

Cohen’s career and canon and quite interesting from a historical and a pop-cultural sense. His songs reflect life, death, sex, revenge, compassion and the spiritual ennui that we have found ourselves in over the last few decades.  With a twenty-six set song list, a 3 and a half hour show and many encores it was truly an impressive and emotive spectacle.  The older songs in the middle of the set list and at the end of the show, were the stand outs for me. “Suzanne” was powerful and beautiful, as it always is, as was “Bird on a wire”, I still find Cohen’s original version, though there are several versions he recorded, his rendition of “Hallelujah “, to me has always been the best, it has a satirical and edgy dark humour to it, that I think is often missed in many of the covers of that now standard/ almost torch song, as my fellow Writer Joe Dolce wrote on here a few weeks ago, that Cohen’s most famous song has now become almost a party-favourite, a show-stopper on American Idol and the X-factor, and people treat it as a prayer—much like I find they treat Cohen as a would-be prophet, Nick Cave is often revered in the same way for much of the same and wrong reasons, I think.

 Cohen’s music and songs, and indeed his poetry is often quite complex to get around, highly sexual and masculine, yet soul-searching and full of reverence.

  One of his  most sexually explicit, which also one of his most  one most famous songs, “Chelsea Hotel # 2”, which as Cohen admits in interviews now is his most un-gallant song, it’s basically about getting a blowjob from Janis Joplin in the stairwell of the famous New York hotel. I like the darkness in Cohen’s work, “Future”, famously used in the soundtrack of the Oliver Stone film, Natural Born Killers,  “Democracy”; these are fire and brimstone songs, apocalyptical prophesies of the highest order. Even, things like the Euro disco style New world order call to arms, “First We’ll Take Manhattan”. Cohen is still very much the old school folk singer, he is just electrified and modernised.  The new stuff he was doing in the first half of the set did get a bit repetitive. His new stuff is trying to be his old stuff, and it simply isn’t. it’s not the same time, or the same world it was when many of his major hits were written and performed. 

I like Cohen immensely. I guess what he is doing now, is what I want to do eventually. But, I do get the sense that he is repeating himself with some of his new pieces. Even, on stage much of the backing music to the new stuff sounds remarkably like Bird on a Wire, Tower of Song and So, Long Marianne. But, of course that could just be the MD trying to give the performance stage scope and symmetry.
Overall, I quite liked this concert and I do recommend Cohen as a stage performer and a song writer. I agree with Joe Dolce though, that I think Cohen still has the potential to be one of the great poets, but I think fame and anxiety and the mythology surrounding Cohen has made him less of a poet and more of a man playing the part of a prophet/poet song-writer.

But, please do yourself a favour and go see Cohen on his Nov/Dec 2013 tour and listen to his music, especially if you are an aspiring poet and/or song writer. There is a lot from Cohen you can inspire you and teach you what to do and what not to do.

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