Sarah Hill was at the Motorpoint Arena in Cardiff to review a performance by influential Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen.
Much was made earlier this year about the Rolling Stones’ fiftieth anniversary. Their contrary feat of simply living so long, their ubiquity and their influence, were all noted in the music papers, in documentaries, and in the broadcast media. But they misplayed their hand. When I was at home in March the Stones’ concert at the Oakland Arena had not sold well: the tickets were priced too high, and the tour itself felt like a needless grab for more cash. I have missed many opportunities to see the Stones play over the years, but I can recall one glorious Saturday afternoon in the mid-1970s, standing on the back deck of my childhood home, hearing the band quite clearly as they played the Oakland Coliseum some six miles away as the crow flies. It always felt like that free experience was enough of an excuse not to have seen them in concert in the 1980s and 1990s; by the 2000s, the thought of seeing ageing men singing wonderful, but frankly misogynistic, songs about young women was a little off-putting. Most of the Stones are grandfathers by now, aren’t they? I shall say no more.
So what is it about the longevity and influence of another old man, another grandfather, on another world tour, singing about other young women, that draws people in their droves? Leonard Cohen doesn’t shimmy. Leonard Cohen doesn’t pretend to sing like Tina Turner or Otis Redding. Leonard Cohen doesn’t dress like a pirate. Leonard Cohen is now pushing eighty and, in great contrast to the world around him, seems to be the very embodiment of stillness, grace, and gratitude. His songs – beautifully crafted, impeccably delivered – are throwbacks to an earlier era, with not a Stone in sight.
This was my first Leonard Cohen show – even had he played a Day on the Green at the Oakland Coliseum in the 1970s the sound probably wouldn’t have reached me at my childhood home – so I have to admit an unfamiliarity with the evolution of his performance style. But I would suggest that his success as a live performer, by all accounts since his re-emergence on the touring circuit a few years ago, is in no small part due to his musical collaborators. The nine musicians he had with him on stage last night displayed an extraordinary restraint, an acute sensitivity to the material, and a palpable admiration for one another. While one could make the same claims for Bob Dylan’s band (to take the example of another endlessly touring grandfather) the crucial difference here is the very subtle interactions between Cohen’s musicians, the sense of an organic whole that they present, and the way in which Cohen would step aside and watch, very respectfully, hat on his heart, as they took their individual solos. This very lack of ego is almost breathtaking.
And then there are the songs. Cohen’s lyrics are marvels of the form. While on his earlier records their settings may have been overwrought, in their current incarnation they are vibrant little gems, stripped right back to their essence or given a new lease of life in another’s sympathetic voice. Of course in Cohen’s own voice, now a basso profondo, lyrics of love and longing, memory and regret, fairly leap out of the musical texture and strike right at the listener’s heart. And there were moments last night when Leonard Cohen actually reminded me of James Brown. Cohen spent so much of the concert falling to his knees, remaining on his knees, singing while kneeling on the stage, not just at moments of great emotion, as James Brown was wont to do, but to maintain in the audience a level of tension and concentration that would have been all too easily broken, what with the giant screens flanking the stage and the inevitable flickering of iPhones as the few younger audience members tweeted the setlist.
It was at those moments – Leonard Cohen on his knees on the stage, unraked rows A-P in front of me (including the crucial one tall man whose head always blocked the very part of the stage that I was trying to see) – that I was actually grateful for the giant screens. I hate feeling like I’ve paid to see a live performance, only to end up watching television, but one needs to see Cohen’s face when he sings. More importantly, one needs to see Cohen’s face as he reacts to the other musicians as they’re playing to understand what ‘musicianship’ really means. There were extended moments in the concert last night when the unspoken communication and mutual respect between Cohen and Javier Mas, playing the 12-string guitar or the bandurria, was captured on those giant screens, and they are moments that will remain with me forever.
This need for giant screens aside, I still wish Cardiff could have offered Leonard Cohen a more beautiful room to sing in. He and the band were able to maintain a sense of intimacy despite the harsh and unlovely surroundings of the Motorpoint Arena, but they needed drapes, and a proscenium arch, and a little bit of gilded filigree splattered here and there to complement the lovely velvet upholstered chairs that the guitarists and fiddler sat on stage left, and indeed the very classic and understated businesswear that Cohen and his band (male and female alike) wore to work last night. I can’t wish myself back to a Leonard Cohen performance in the 1970s, however, and I’m fairly certain this was the one and only time that I will have had the privilege of seeing the man perform, so I will abandon my petty grievances of aesthetic imperfection and note the most wonderful and joyous image of the night: Leonard Cohen, thanking his ‘friends’ (the audience), thanking his collaborators, each in turn, each by his or her full name, thanking the stage crew, again by name, thanking the soundman, the lighting designer and the rigger, all by name, bowing deeply, then turning to his right and skipping off stage as the music played on.
Leonard Cohen live at the Motorpoint Arena, Cardiff
Recommended for you: