Songs from the Road – The World Tour 2008-2009
Review by Doug Heselgrave
I’ve been sent more Leonard Cohen material to review in the last five years than in the twenty years that preceded them. The man I first met in 1984 when he was in Vancouver to publicize his new volume of poetry, The Book of Mercy, seemed genuinely touched that a small group of people had come out to listen to him read ‘so many years later.’ I wonder what he thinks now – so many more years later – of all of the attention that has been focused on his work of late.
When I spoke with Anjani Thomas – Cohen’s friend and collaborator – in 2007 about the prospect of Leonard going out on tour, she laughed and said ‘ he doesn’t think anyone would want to come out and see him now.’ Three years into his ‘farewell’ jaunt around the world, nearly a million concert goers have proven him wrong, and interest in the Canadian poet and singer has never been greater.
And – as they say – nature abhors a vacuum, so it’s not surprising that record company executives have raced to fill the relative void of new Cohen material on the market to capitalize on the intense latter day fascination with the man’s music. In response, there have been reissues of Cohen’s first three studio albums (a move Cohen did not approve of as he considered it superfluous ) followed by the best selling Live in London DVD/CD set from 2008 and archival DVD sets from the Isle of Wight Festival and the 1974 tour.
So, it was with a certain degree of trepidation that I opened the package from Sony containing the newest DVD/CD offering entitled ‘Songs from the Road.’ I held the CD and DVD in my hands and felt disappointed and underwhelmed. This newest issue seemed to represent little more than a last trawl for money initiated by musical commodities traders who sell songs like so much beef. Surely, Mr. Cohen must have paid off his debts by now, I grimaced and felt the time for him to call his manager and say ‘enough!’ had long since passed.
So, it was with this grumbling, curmugeonly attitude that I dropped the ‘Songs from the Road’ DVD into my player as I started to clean my office. At first, I didn’t pay much attention as the film opened with a selection from a concert in Tel Aviv as Cohen and his band slinkily worked their way into a smouldering version of ‘Lover Lover’ that quite literally stopped me in my tracks. As Javier Mas’ bandura and Bob Metzger’s lead guitar wove intricate tapestries around Cohen’s plaintive melody, I stopped my work, forgot everything I had set out to do and dropped onto the couch to watch the film right until the end. As often as I have heard all of these songs – there are certainly no real surprises in the selections on offer here – there is something about the appeal of Leonard Cohen’s music that defies logic and expectation.
The songs are old. Some say as old as the world and Cohen simply gathered what was already written in the wind, etched in the soil. But, if we can dispense with the Biblical hyperbole and simply listen to the music, it’s quickly apparent that well into his seventies, Cohen is still an evolving artist. The songs on this offering were mostly all featured in the O2 Live in London set, but they look and sound a world different this time around. Live in London was released quickly near the beginning of the current tour. It was a wonderful document that demonstrates how deeply Cohen cares about his music, and showcased the thoughtful, generous and often humorous nature of his performance art. The songs are lovingly recreated and shown off in their finest dress. It offers a powerful, elegiac encapsulation of a life spent with words and music. But, surprisingly, as ‘Songs from the Road’ shows, ‘Live in London’ was just a beginning and a springboard for a reassessment of Cohen’s work by Cohen himself.
A year and a half spent on the road together has not surprisingly allowed Cohen and his band to interact with the music in a way that was not possible when the ‘Live in London’ set came out. While the former set was polished and genteel, the same songs on the new video have taken on a certain amount of grit and looseness reminiscent of the much earlier performance captured on The Isle of Wight DVD. Yet, Cohen is of course considerably older now and having lived with many of these songs for decades, has found deeper ways of communicating their essential meanings. Not unlike recent Willie Nelson concerts in which the elder country singer has been accused of rushing through his songs so that he can play the guitar, here Cohen ironically often shifts emphasis from his lyrics to the beautiful music that his band creates to evoke the essential truths contained within them. As the camera reveals, after singing some of these songs for more than forty years, Cohen still seems genuinely in awe of the words that channel through him. He carries himself on stage as if he was a conduit for something greater than himself and the voice that once did its best to sing now often does little more than intone reverently the words he once struggled to compose. The effect is like nothing else in popular music. As a friend who joined me to watch the second half of the film said as Cohen sang ‘The Partisan’ for a rapt Helsinki crowd, ‘Y’know no matter how many times I hear that song, it still sends a chill down my back. There really is no one as cool as Leonard Cohen.”
That really says it all. It shouldn’t work. A neurotic Jewish guy from Montreal goes to Nashville and tries to support his poetry career by writing country songs. He can’t play that well. His voice is right up there with that other Leonard who plays Spock when it comes to emotive range, and his songs are all so flipping heavy and bleak. Yet, well into his seventies he can hold audiences from all over the world in the palm of his hands, in the hands of his Psalms, for more than three hours without a second of restlessness or boredom.
‘Songs from the Road’ is the story of a man surrendering, unwinding into his art and finding grace there. It is the document of a man on a pilgrimage, travelling the earth to see if his life and the focus of his work have been worthwhile. One can only hope that Cohen likes what he hears and will find the peace and tranquillity he has long sought.
Despite my initial reservations, I can’t recommend this set enough. Of all the ‘Cohen product’ on the market, ‘Songs from the Road’ is certainly the souvenir most worthy of purchase, and for those unfamiliar with his music, it might just be enough to make understand what all the fuss has been about. Indispensible.
This posting also appears at www.restlessandreal.blogspot.com
Sign up for free updates