There’s No One Quite Like Leonard

Leonard Cohen. poet and perfomer par excellence

In case you missed the town criers hammering their bells down your neck of the wood, then let me whisper it quietly: Leonard is back in tour. And he is as good as ever.

The Old Ideas World Tour began last week with five concerts in the open air in St Peter’s Square in the beautiful Belgian town of Ghent – “Bruges without the stiffs” as one local put it.

Each was a sell-out which at 8,000 seats a night means around 40,000 people went to see Leonard Cohen and his band glide their way through almost half a century of back catalogue – maths is not my strong point but by my reckoning that’s pretty much the entire population of Belgium.

He responded with a masterful performance which on each night – bar Wednesday when light rain forced a 25 minute delay – saw him on stage on his feet for the best part of four hours. What a lesson for all 77-year-olds, not to mention those even younger, who claim they are too old for such fripperies.

There were changes in the line-up from his last World Tour between 2008 and 2010. No Dino Soldo, the “master of wind” and no Bobby Metzger who was apparently not well enough to commit to the tour. In their places the Moldovan violinist Alexandru Bublitchi and Mitch Watkins, who had played with Cohen way back when.

The band in action in Ghent (apologies to Charley Webb who appears to have been cut off)

The rest were the same…Raphael “the Prince of Precision” Gayol on the drums, Neil Larsen on the Hammond B3 organ, Spanish guitarist Javier Mas and Roscoe Beck on bass. Sharon Robinson, who soloed an unexpected treat in Alexandra Leaving, and the Webb Sisters, Hattie and Charley, were again on backing vocals.

Within the set were the usual classics, Suzanne, Marianne, Tower of Song, Hallelujah, Dance me to the End of Love, Famous Blue Raincoat, Bird on a Wire, In my Secret Life, Democracy, I’m Your Man, Gypsy Woman and The Partisan to name just a few of the more household titles.

No Chelsea Hotel, no Sisters of Mercy, no Thousand Kisses Deep but that didn’t seem to matter as he also played a number of songs off his new album Old Ideas, all of which slide so easily into the repertoire that you think you heard them years ago.

Second song up was Going Home, one that seems likely to become his signature:

“I’d like to speak with Leonard,
He’s a sportsman and a shepherd,
He’s a lazy bastard living in a suit.”

The drapes behind the stage leant an ethereal feel to the evening; with the colours changing through blues, reds and greens and the wind tugging at their sides, they had more than an air of the Northern Lights. The crowd, absorbed throughout, changing from being unobtrusively nice to foot-stompingly raucous as Cohen finally rang the bell with Closing Time.

A CLEAN CONVERSION

I admit to being what you might call a recent convert to the music of Leonard Cohen. As my head reverberated to the sounds of The Clash, The Jam, Stiff Little Fingers, Blondie and The Sex Pistols, he made no impression on me all while I was a schoolboy. Patti Smith and Bob Dylan both crept in but not Cohen.

At university, my friend Quentin Letts, later to find fame as the political sketchwriter for the British tabloid The Daily Mail and touted I hear as a possible director general of the BBC,  would occasionally end an evening by slipping Death of a Ladies Man on to the turntable. But with the whiskey doing the rounds there was more talking than listening. Besides, Cohen was routinely slagged off as a Master of Misery specialising in Slit Your Wrists music. Not worth listening to, apparently.

Ah, the folly of youth.

Sometime in the late 1990s I spotted a Best Of in a bargain bin somewhere. I thought why not and took it home. It became compulsive listening. I began to discover the truth behind the man, the depth of the poetry and the inherent optimism that permeates his work. And the humour.

I realised that Cohen is not a master of gloom; his music was far from depressing. Quite the reverse, in fact. He sees the darkness, looks it in the eye and gets on with it. As he says in Anthem:

“There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.”

Shortly after, I met a young woman called Jacqueline Jones who was a hardcore Leonard Cohen fan. She took me in hand. I became a Leonard fan; and Jacqueline became my wife.

At that stage, of course, there was little hope of seeing Leonard live. His last tour was back in 1994, these days he was stuck up a mountain learning about Zen and the art of motorcycle maintainence or something similar.

Then in 2008 came the news that he was returning to the road. Jacqueline dashed off to Copenhagen. I had to wait until he came to Athens where we were living.

I was working for Athens International Radio at the time. Naturally I wanted to interview Leonard but there was no chance of that. So, as an alternative I contacted the Webb Sisters – or as Cohen says “the sublime Webb Sisters.

Charley and Hattie were charming, laughing politely at my suggestion that they had joined an elite band of women – “it’s music’s equivalent of being a Bond girl, isn’t it?” – and promised to wave to our children at that night’s concert at Malakassa.

It was a great night which confused my old sparring partner Perri Pagonis whose usual musical tastes ranged between The Beastie Boys and Tampta. Here is his review of that concert from the Athens News.

Following that concert we managed to catch Cohen at the Olympia in Paris that November – an over-rated venue at over-inflated prices – and then in 2009, having moved to Paris, we saw him at Bercy.

Unfortunately I had a metal shard in my right eye at the time which meant I was constantly blinking and weeping but even with only one good eye it was another wonderful night. Perhaps the only downer was that we both believed that it would probably be the last time we would see Cohen on stage.

And that made Ghent all the more special. It was an added bonus, another chance to catch a great poet and a great performer in concert.

For more information on Leonard Cohen and the Old Ideas World Tour, you will do a lot worse than visiting these sites

Official Leonard Cohen website

Leonard Cohen Forum

Heck of a Guy

For videos of Leonard Cohen in concert, I suggest the YouTube channel of Albert Noonan – good quality, very clear and an impressively steady hand.

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