Monday, May 18th, 2009
First, We Take Manhattan
Leonard Cohen at the Palace Theater in Waterbury, Connecticut
Frank YangIf only it were as Muppet-simple as “taking Manhattan”. In fact, it shook out more like first, I take a subway, then a shuttle bus, then a ferry, then a plane, then monorail, train and subway again just to get into Manhattan. And just as soon as I’ve arrived in the Big Apple, it’s back on the subway, another subway, then a train, another train and then an unlicensed taxi (“hey you need a ride?”) – all to get into Waterbury, Connecticut. A city which was once apparently a brass manufacturing powerhouse but which now seems to have little to recommend it as a destination, save for a gorgeous theater downtown – the Palace – and on Thursday night, one Leonard Cohen.
Seeing Cohen wasn’t on the agenda as recently as last weekend, as I’d hoped to be able to finagle a way to the Hamilton show at Copp’s tomorrow, but an extra ticket from Without A Yard, serendipitous scheduling and a willingness to undertake a rather ridiculous set of logistics to trek out to the show made it happen. Mostly. Weather delays and other issues fixed it so that we didn’t actually reach the theater until almost mid-way into Cohen’s set – so it’s just as well that he needs no introduction, because I wouldn’t have been able to provide one.
Thankfully, the show was extra-long and with an intermission, for that’s when we arrived and thus managed to avoid being those people who get there late and try to find their seats in the dark. Sure, it meant that instead of a marathon three-hour show, we only got a 90-minute, regular-length show, but even a that much Leonard is like a gift – especially in a venue as stunning as the Palace. There may not be much else to say about a one-cab town like Waterbury, but this was easily the second-nicest place I’d ever seen a show, after only the Royal Albert Hall in London.
And what a show. I don’t know what Cohen played in the front half of the performance, but it almost seemed like he knew to hold back my favourite songs for the finale, as it was stunner after stunner as soon as the lights went down and Cohen, surprisingly nimble, sprinted/danced/shimmied onto the stage. “Tower Of Song”, “Suzanne”, “Take This Waltz”, “Democracy”, “Halleleujah”, “Famous Blue Raincoat”, hell yes. And okay, I just had a look at the set list for the show and am a little pained to have missed “Anthem”, “Everybody Knows” and “Chelsea Hotel” but still, no regrets.
Just as remarkable as hearing the songs performed live – not something I ever thought I’d get to experience – was how good Cohen sounded. He’s obviously not a young man – he may have been spry but was still a slightish figure and a bit stooped – but age seems to have served his delivery very well, somehow making his voice even deeper, richer and more sonorous. He also played more guitar than I’d expected, and I’d have been happy – possibly even happier – to have heard him play solo. It’s no secret my favourite Cohen aesthetic is that of the stark, dark folksinger of his earlier works even if, as far as songs go, I prefer his later works circa The Future or I’m Your Man (and I’m far from unique in this, I know) but the production values on those records – the big bands, the backing singers, the rather dubious synths – have just aged so badly that it can be hard to listen to.
In the live setting, he splits the difference somewhat with a nine-piece backing band including three backing singers – it’s all live, analog instrumentation, toy keyboard on “Tower Of Song” excepted, and masterfully played but I don’t feel the high degree of polish – even if suited for the setting – suits the songs best. They need those dark, dusty corners and the gleam of Cohen’s band doesn’t let those shadows fall where they should. Additionally, Cohen as bandleader was generous to a fault, allowing extended excursions to the musicians – do anyone really need to hear more than one bouzouki solo in a lifetime? – and even ceding lead vocals to Sharon Robinson on their collaboration “Boogie Street”. Perhaps if I’d made the entire show, I’d have been less anxious about it but any moment that Cohen wasn’t singing felt like a lost one.
Understand, however, that these complaints aren’t even really complaints, more just observations, and should in no way imply that I was less than enraptured by the show. No matter how you dress them up, the heart of it is Cohen, his words and his voice, and those were flawless. Obviously I hope that Cohen continues to tour and that I might get to see him again – start to finish – but that’s a huge and probably unrealistic presumption. I feel fortunate to have seen as much as I did, and to anyone who will be seeing him on any of his remaining dates, you are in for such a treat. But of course you already knew that.
The Hartford Courant also has a review of the Waterbury show.
Photos: Leonard Cohen @ The Palace Theater – May 14, 2009
Video: Leonard Cohen – “Democracy”
Video: Leonard Cohen – “Closing Time”
Video: Leonard Cohen – “Dance Me To The End Of Love”
Video: Leonard Cohen – “In My Secret Life”
Video: Leonard Cohen – “First We Take Manhattan”
MySpace: Leonard Cohen
Anyone disappointed that Loney Dear had to cancel last week’s show in Toronto on account of their van breaking down between here and Montreal – I’m looking at you, me – can take a little solace in this performance they recorded for Baeble Music’s new “Guest Apartment” video session series. Seattlest has an interview with Emil Svanangen.
Video: Spinnerette – “Ghetto Love”
The Rural Alberta Advantage, who will properly release Hometowns on July 7 and tour North America all Summer to support, will play a homecoming pit stop/record release show at the Horseshoe on July 30.
So some details have emerged on why the Olympic Island concert was canceled last week. Broken Social Scene’s Kevin Drew blogs that the July 11 date was unfortunately scheduled opposite the Molson Indy – both temporally and physically, what with Olympic Island being just across the lake from Exhibition Place, where the very loud cars would have been tearing around the track all day. They’d likely have been done by the time BSS and Explosions In The Sky took the stage but for the rest of the bands, it’d have been near-unbearable. Beach House wouldn’t have stood a chance. So the festival was canned, the free make-up show that same night from BSS at Harbourfront Centre announced and the lineups for it are probably already stretching all along the waterfront. Also covered in the post is the fact that the band are now recording their fourth album – a proper Broken release, not a “Presents” faux-solo record – with Tortoise’s John McIntire at the helm. Considering his aesthetic is very, very different from usual BSS producer Dave Newfeld, it should be very interesting to see what comes of this – one hopes he can curb some/much of the Scene’s meandering sprawl without costing them their spontaneous magic. And Pitchfork currently has excerpts from the new Broken biography, This Book Is Broken available to read.