Leonard Cohen, Vienna Konzerthaus, 24-25 September 2008

Not much to add to my review of Leonard Cohen‘s Bruges concert, which is of course part of the problem. Every aspect of these shows is planned, meticulous, slick and competent. No risks are taken, there are hardly any off-the-cuff comments to the audience, the set list varies little if at all from night to night. Listen to recordings of two separate concerts and you’d be hard pressed to tell them apart.

In terms of Cohen talking to the audience, all you get is the endless announcements of the group members (which are often made at just the wrong moment, cutting into the climax of the solo) and the scripted introductions to the songs, which are repeated more or less verbatim from night to night. These are often meant to sound off-the-cuff, but are actually anything but, and (even allowing for the fact that it’s only the fanatics like me who attend more than one concert; for everyone else, it doesn’t matter in the least) their impact is diminished because of it. One would have thought that Leonard would have taken the trouble to say something special about “Take This Waltz” at these shows, since he was singing it in the city in which it is set; but no, he introduced it in the same way as he does every other night (i.e. not at all).

Film of Cohen live in 1979 shows a man with a completely different attitude to live performance from the one we see today. His communication with the audience in those days was raw, spontaneous and improvisatory. In the intervening years, I fear that something precious has been lost.

All of that said, these two Vienna concerts were nevertheless rapturous, inspirational affairs. Cohen seemed to be positioned deep in the well of his immense gifts. As he sang, he focused his infinitely sad, wise, experienced gaze somewhere in the middle distance. Occasionally, I turned my attention away from him and towards the glorious surroundings of the Konzerthaus, and reflected that this kind of alignment is not likely to recur in my life for a long time, if ever.