Ether column, July 2009

As usual the gig schedule is a bit thin over the summer months, although there are still a few events worth checking out, most of them outdoors. I’m going to devote my whole column, however, to just one of these. If you go to only one concert this summer, it should be the one by Canadian singer and songwriter Leonard Cohen, who makes his second visit to Austria within a year when he plays at the open-air festival site at Wiesen in Burgenland. Many will by now know the story of how Cohen’s former manager plundered his retirement fund to the tune of $5 million, forcing him to play concerts again at the age of 74. But if money was the original impetus behind Cohen’s return to live work, it’s nevertheless clear that he’s caught the touring bug again, having played more than 100 concerts in Europe, North America and Australia over the past year.

With a recording career stretching back over 40 years and a series of acclaimed novels and poetry collections to his name, Cohen is the only serious rival to Bob Dylan for the accolade of greatest poet in popular music. His earliest records were sparse and bleak, his folkish guitar the sole accompaniment to devastatingly sad and haunting meditations on love, death and spirituality. The lyrics, shot through with rapturously poetic imagery, were half-spoken, half-sung in a sepulchral baritone that perfectly reflected the gravity of the songs. Gradually Cohen began to expand his instrumental palette, augmenting the ever-present female backing vocals with strings and woodwind and situating his music deep within the central European folk tradition. This may account for the fact that Cohen has always found audiences in Europe to be more receptive to his work than those in his native North America, where in the mid-80s he was unable even to land a record contract.

1988’s I’m Your Man was a landmark album for Cohen, in which he traded guitars for synthesisers and drum machines and dropped the overtly religious imagery that had in favour of a flat, humorous and conversational language. Some long-time fans were disgruntled, but Cohen had the last laugh as he found a new generation of audiences who welcomed him in his new combined role of jester and prophet. Often unfairly dismissed as an arch miserablist, Cohen had in fact been introducing humour into his work since the early ‘70s. Now, though, he seemed convinced that the only way out of the political and spiritual crises facing mankind was to laugh in the face of them.

Cohen’s two sold-out shows at the Vienna Konzerthaus last September were truly inspirational affairs, filled with his unique poetry, wisdom and grace. A field in Burgenland may not be quite such an alluring location, but Cohen and his immaculate band are sure to stamp their indelible magic on the evening in any case.

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