Saturday, June 14, 2008
2008-06-06 & 06-07
2 Nights in TO
Hamilton was nice. First time seeing Leonard in over 14 years and he was in good form...but the first two Toronto shows were outstanding.
On the Friday (Night 1) we had the benefit of an off-day preceeding the show and you could tell Leonard was not wanting for energy or enthusiasm as every word was lovingly delivered when required or powerfully delivered when called for.
On the Saturday (Night 2) we had a much more lively, and intrusive, crowd. In some ways they added to the ambiance...in others, their intrusiveness impacted the flow of the concert, causing them to lose some preambles in front of the songs.
Every night was a different experience, all were top-notch entertainment.
After a lengthy East Coast opening to this tour, where Leonard graced a number of smaller stages, he's now moving the tour into 'big city' mode. The venue is slightly larger in Toronto and, as he moves on from here, he will be playing festivals and large halls in Europe. So the 'cozy confines' part is done, not that the SONY Centre is a cavern or anything.
Having had time to digest the shows since I wrote this report on the Hamilton show, my appreciation only grows with each listen.
Not a single trick was missed with this production. On Friday night my seats were situated in the first balcony so I was able to enjoy the lighting that accompanies the very orchestrated playing onstage. Even it was luscious, with a predominantly blue theme. Much like Leonard's songs. Of course the irony is that no one's misery can make you happy like Leonards.
Did I mention that they don't miss a trick? Not a one, and there are plenty around.
The show opens with the band ambling onstage to a light smattering of applause that grows slowly until Leonard is seen trotting into position, at which time the whole dame place goes crazy; making it twice. Immediately you notice something...the guy's got a smile that could outshine the sun in the sky. Where's the dour, brooding, introspective poet? Well, we'll get introspection, but time's too short and life's too sweet for the dour-brooding part.
Both nights in Toronto he starts a monologue to thank the fans for coming out. His vocal mic is turned waaaaaay down low and though the crowds have been well seated before the start of show, sometimes people don't focus immediately. This little trick brings everyone forward. If they were cats you'd be able to see their ears turn towards the stage as they strain to hear what the master is saying. Except he's saying nothing of consequence, just assorted thanks and mention "that some of you came from great distances," (vocal volume begins to increase), "and at great expense..." by now the crowd chuckles as the volume is at 'speaking level', all can hear clearly and the seat rustling is down to a minimum. He goes on to humbly say that his and his crack ensemble have some songs to "present"...and the music starts, leading us into Dance Me to the End of Love, from the 1984 Various Positions release. A great opening song, it's got a nice beat, you can dance to it, I give it an 82. The beauty is it's not a tune that requires rapt attention. It warms the band and the audience up, and if you don't enjoy the swing, then maybe music ain't your thing. Plus, it's the opening salvo, an invitation to excitation on a journey of discovery.
In a way it's a shame that so much of Leonard's creative musical career fell in and around the 80's...i mean all that synth stuff. This band overcomes that problem, making what was once a cold electronic beat, sound warmer, more inviting, less annoying. It was explained best by my friend Tim Swaddling: "Cohen presented his songs with a band, a real honest to goodness band, one that even came with some steel guitar and a Hammond B3 instead of a Yamaha synth-cheap imitation of an organ...If Leonard is smart, a live album will follow and they won't over polish all the subtle rough edges the band managed to chip into the clean glossy coating Cohen usually paints with. And if Leonard is even smarter, this band will follow him into the studio and he will record drums to sound like drums and guitars that sound like guitars and organs that sound like them. What I wouldn't give to hear a Cohen album produced by someone like Rick Rubin or Steve Albini or even Brendan O’Brien for that matter. And Cohen is a very smart man, so I look forward to the possibility and potential of a future release from him now. Which should make up for the anticipation I had for the release of "Ten New Songs", only to listen to it and find that someone had forgotten to tell Leonard the 80's were over once he had came down from his mountain of monk-dom..."
The Future is evidence that this millenium's Leonard is kinder, gentler and warmer. Not only is the music less 'digital', the lyrics have a slight modification; what once was "give me crack and anal sex", has now become "give me crack and careless sex". Hard to tell if this was changed so as not to offend the sensibilities of the patrons. Perhaps it's a by-product of the realization that the scourge of the '80's, aids, has proven to be more than a gay disease and that the reference to 'anal' sex may marginalize the scope of the problem. Not sure and it's notable only because there are very few lyric changes in any of these songs. Leonard does a lovely little move during the line "white man dancin'" that elicited a different response each night. In Hamilton the audience cheered loudly with the first move...a little less so the second time. On Friday in Toronto there was no response to the first little jig and Leonard skipped the move on the second pass of those lyrics. On the boisterous Saturday night the response to the first dance resulted in a more animated second pass.
Ain't No Cure For Love was prefaced with the "kid with a crazy dream" speech in Hamilton but we don't get it tonight as Leonard leads the band right into the song. The whole setlist is heavily weighted to I'm Your Man and The Future, which serves the show well as those records make up the bulk of what is familiar to the audience and the songs are strong. The backing vocals on this are wonderful and on the Friday night Leonard nails the timing when he implores, "tell 'em angels", as the trio weave their heavenly tapestry. The second night sees him jump in a little early, stumbling into their harmony and kind of spoiling the moment.
Bird on the Wire is Leonard's Blowin' in the Wind , so simple in structure yet so evocative. The audience listens, mesmerized, as each image is unveiled, as each line paints a portrait. It's a very visual song...i can see that woman leaning in her darkened door. The song also contains one of the steepest cliffs in the rock pantheon: "like a baby...still born" For only 5 words it's one roller-coaster ride of emotion. A perfect poem, efficient use of words, for sure.
Everybody Knows doesn't wear quite as well as the other foreboding tales, like The Future or Democracy. If we all knew back then why haven't we fixed anything?
Musical collaborator Sharon Robinson is spotlighted in the melodic In My Secret Life. Honey sweet everytime.
There's an extended solo for string-virtuoso Javier Mas that precedes Who By Fire as Leonard continues to rely heavily on the mid-career songs...to no one's chagrin. It's already been a pretty impressive representation of the best of his career as we near the one hour mark of the show...only 1/3 done.
The opening set closes with Anthem. On the Friday show Leonard moves his "just a kid with a crazy dream" speech to the front of this song. It fits well with the spoken word into that admonishes us to "ring the bells, that still can ring/ forget your perfect offering..." How much time's been wasted in the pursuit of perfection, eh? I always marvel at the economy of words. The song also contains a couplet that is the emotional opposite to the 'still born baby' image from earlier: there is a crack in everything...that's how the light gets in In Bird On A Wire a happy thought is thrashed; in this song a sad thought is elevated. Like I said, roller-coaster. As the song runs into it's musical outro Leonard advises they will return as we're given 20 minutes to catch our breath. As winded as I am...I wanna get back on!!
I don't leave my seat for break. I just wait.
Leonard's in front of a Fisher-Price type piano to open the second set with a joke. Knowing most of his audience is likely techno-phobic he warns them before he turns on the synthesizer and the rhythm-beat to Tower of Song starts playing. Another fan favorite that elicits chuckles at the Hank Williams line and loud roars at the "gift of a golden voice" line. He even interjects a joke after "they don't let a woman kill you in the tower of song"...elsewhere, not there." His feel for the mood each evening is amazing. His patter, jokes and even delivery of the songs seem to change for each dynamic created by the individuals and the surrounding.
With a solo amplified acoustic guitar Leonard stands center stage to deliver Suzanne, a song he reports in interviews, is difficult. It is BIG. Big with imagery, emotion, sentiment and ambiance. I'm making a mental note to go down and stare at that Lady of the Harbour the next time I'm in Montreal. Also got a strange craving for tea and oranges. Some songs are bigger than the artist, this is one.
Now every concert has a 'dead zone', that spot where the show lags just a tad. In a three hour set to have only a momentary lapse in the excitement is pretty amazing. Even Springsteen, the undisputed master of live concert performances, has a 5 song lull in his most recent tour. The next two songs mark that low intensity point in this show but they are put to great use. The Gypsy's Wife and Boogie Street showcase the back up singers and give Leonard a little break, for which we'll all be grateful soon. I saw Anjani perform The Gypsy's Wife twice when she stopped in Toronto last year. It was the highlight of the show...so you know it's not the song, it's where it's placed in the set.
So after that stellar opening set we are three songs into the second one and really haven't been challenged. Everyone's comfortably seated after the short intermission, all drinks are drunk. We've passed the 'dead zone' and now it's time to get the audience back.
Hallelujah starts quickly, with no extended musical intro, and quietly as the first few words are whispered. Leonard stands, knees bent, almost huddled over the microphone and begins his prayer. The vocal level rises from verse to verse in this song as Leonard's delivery increases in intensity. It builds slowly at first but within a minute everyone recognizes this is the center-piece of the show. His voice is strong, the song is stronger still. There's no way to adequately review this performance. The Friday night version is amongst the top 5 most powerful songs I've seen done live (ok, maybe top 10 and maybe I can't name 'em all but it's right up there with the best I've witnessed).
Leonard could have walked off the stage right here and no one would have been cheated but we're only at the half way mark.
Well, the half way mark of the concert...we're just about done with this review.
Democracy is a peculiar song for a Canadian audience. I'm sure most misread the intent...we just love the thought of democracy coming (to get) the USA...that's our nature. But as Leonard's introduction notes, he loves the country and this is his love song to America, "the cradle of the best and the worst." It's a hope, more than a threat. We are blessed to be alive in the time of the American Century...and cursed to live in interesting times. But no empire has been built on loftier ideals, so our best bet still seems to be an ascendant America.
The performance on the Friday night show (Night 1) was excellent but the version of I'm Your Man we received on Saturday night was worthy of it's own spotlight. The crowd had a lot to do with it, the more lively mood during the evening, while robbing us of some sublime moments, opened the door to a more raucous enjoyment of a downright bluesy-dirty song. Cat-calls rained down with every sexy line and Leonard's smile, pacing and delivery showed he was loving every minute.
He follows it with an even more overtly sexual recitation, A Thousand Kisses Deep. Another knockout punch that quiets the crowd.
The second set closes with a lively outing for Take This Waltz and two dance songs have bracketed the evening.
Like I said...not a trick was missed.
The encore on Night 1 opens with the jaunty, country-tinged, Heart With No Companion. Think of it as an upbeat Chimes of Freedom. Where Dylan's chimes rang for the downtrodden and dispossesed, Leonard sings for the lonely, unfulfilled and unrequited. Strange how such a song could be joyous. Guess you had to be there.
Waiting For the Miracle To Come was added to the setlist a week or two into the tour. It's a nice addition and a fan favorite. You can tell it means a lot to Leonard, his phrasing is subtle and attentive.
The first encore concludes with First We Take Manhattan and who can bitch about the biggest radio hit Leonard's ever had?
The band doesn't leave the stage between the first and second encores, just Leonard and only momentarily as he runs back out to the mic to deliver a song about his drinking problems, That Don't Make It Junk, some comedic relief, if you can imagine that.
The sublime Webb sisters are spotlighted in the newly added If It Be Your Will. Leonard recites the first two verses before he dissolves into the shadows to allow the two sisters to perform an angelic version of the song.
All bets are off as Closing Time gives allowance to the crowd to let loose.
A quick move offstage and Leonard's back for the final encore. Standing center stage with guitar in hand he starts I Tried To Leave You and every audience breaks out in laughter. A fitting song as it ends with Leonard standing there, hand outstretched, telling the audience he's simply a man "still working for your smile."
How cool is that? Like I said, not a missed trick...and plenty of smiles.
Job well done.
From a critical perspective I would have preferred more songs from earlier in the canon and a handful less band introductions during the show...but that's like saying honey could be sweeter...maybe it could, but there's not a lot of room for improvement.
1 song from debut album Songs of Leonard Cohen (1967)
1 song from Songs From A Room (1969)
Bird on A Wire
0 songs from Songs of Love and Hate (1971)...c'mon Joan of Arc!
also hoping for Passing Through from Live Songs (1973)
2 songs from New Skin for the Old Ceremony (1974)
Who By Fire?, I Tried to Leave You
0 songs from Death of A Ladies Man (1977)ah, c'mon, where the hardon song?
1 song from Recent Songs (1979)
The Gypsy's Wife
4 (out of 9) songs from Various Positions (1984)
Hallelujah, If It Be Your Will, Dance Me To the End of Love and Heart With No Companion
6 (out of 8) songs from I'm Your Man (1988)
First We Take Manhattan, Ain't No Cure For Love, Everybody Knows, I'm Your Man, Take This Waltz, Tower of Song
5 (out of 9) songs from The Future (1992)
The Future, Waiting For The Miracle, Closing Time, Anthem, Democracy
4 (out of 10) songs from 10 New Songs (2001)
In My Secret Life, A Thousand Kisses Deep, That Don't Make It Junk, Boogie Street
0 songs from Dear Heather
Two Nights In Toronto Set List
t01 Dance Me To The End Of Love
t02 The Future
t03 Ain't No Cure For Love
t04 Bird on the Wire
t05 Everybody Knows
t06 In My Secret Life
t07 Who By Fire
t08 Anthem (w/ Band Intro)
t09 Tower of Song
t11 Gypsy Wife
t12 Boogie St
t15 I'm Your Man
t16 A Thousand Kisses Deep
t17 Take This Waltz
t18 Heart With No Companion (not played on Night 2)
t19 Waiting For The Miracle To Come
t20 First We Take Manhattan
t21 That Don't Make It Junk
t22 If It Be Your Will
t23 Closing Time
t24 I Tried To Leave You
Whither Thou Goest (not played on Night 1)