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.

Concerts and albums of 2008

Concerts of the year

Here’s a list of the ten concerts I enjoyed most this year. It’s been an exceptional twelve months for live music around these parts, and it was very hard indeed to whittle it down to ten shows. There’s not much of an order to these ten, with the exception of No. 1, which was far and away the best night of music I heard all year.

1. Okkervil River (Porgy & Bess)
2. Neil Young (Austria Center)
3. Peter Brötzmann/Ken Vandermark/Marino Pliakas/Michael Wertmüller (Porgy & Bess)
4. American Music Club (WUK)
5. Marissa Nadler (Vorstadt)
6. Whitehouse (Rhiz)
7. Leonard Cohen (Konzerthaus)
8. Anthony Braxton (Krakow)
9. Heather Nova (Gasometer)
10. A Silver Mt Zion (Arena)

Albums of the year

I haven’t listened to much recorded music at all this year. Take five:

1. Kathleen Edwards – Asking For Flowers (Zoë)
2. Okkervil River – The Stand-Ins (Jagjaguwar)
3. Mary Hampton – My Mother’s Children (Navigator)
4. Original Silence – The Second Original Silence (Smalltown Superjazzz)
5. Anthony Braxton – The Complete Arista Recordings (Mosaic)

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.

Leonard Cohen, Minnewaterpark, Bruges, Belgium, 10 July 2008

I can’t remember how I first got into Leonard Cohen, but I do recollect buying my first album by him. It was Songs from a Room, an original orange label copy on CBS, for £2 at Wax Factor in Brighton, during my second year at university (which puts it at 1987). What spurred me into buying it remains a mystery to me; I must have heard his name mentioned somewhere and had my interest piqued. It could well have been an interview with Suzanne Vega, of whom I was a great admirer at the time; she namechecked him in many of her early interviews. In any event, Songs from a Room quickly became a firm favourite with me by virtue of its mournful lassitude and air of extreme, willed introspection.

As is my way with many artists I discover for the first time, I quickly immersed myself in as much of Cohen’s back catalogue as I could lay my hands on. My first move in that direction, however, was a clear false start. Hoping for more of the melancholy, wintry sound I had found so appealing in Songs from a Room, I got Death of a Ladies’ Man and was distinctly underwhelmed by its everything-but-the-kitchen-sink production – the responsibility, I later learned, of Phil Spector. Things got back on track with Songs of Leonard Cohen and Songs of Love and Hate, but when the first album of new Cohen songs came out since I became a fan – 1988’s I’m Your Man – it too sounded overproduced, with the dated synthesisers and drum machines sitting uneasily among the fallen majesty of that voice. The lyrics, meanwhile, were thin gruel after the exalted and rapturous imagery of a set like 1984’s Various Positions.  Cohen described his then new style of writing (with reference to “I Can’t Forget”, but it applies to the whole album apart from “Take This Waltz”) as “that limpid kind of language that doesn’t twist your arm at all…a dead, flat language.”

All of that said, Leonard Cohen has been a very important and much loved figure to me ever since, and the three Royal Albert Hall concerts I saw him perform (one in 1988 and two in 1993) were indescribably moving affairs. At one of the 1993 concerts I even engineered the obtaining of Cohen’s autograph, albeit without going anywhere near the man. I went to the Albert Hall with a pile of rare Cohen hardbacks in my bag, determined to get them signed. As an experienced autograph hunter, I knew the form. After the gig was never a good idea. There were record company parties, schmoozing to be done… it was also quite possible that the artist would leave the building quietly by a side exit. I knew that before the gig was my only chance. I also knew that it was unlikely that I would get to meet Leonard myself. That didn’t matter, as long as I got my books signed. So I would need help.

I also knew the best place to go.  With a good while still to go before the concert started, I stationed myself, not by the stage door outside the venue, but by an artists-only entrance inside. Within a few minutes, one of Cohen’s musicians – a tall guy with glasses, I believe it was the drummer Steve Meador – passed me on the way in. I stopped him and chatted briefly to him; he was (as far as I could tell) not pissed off to be accosted in this way. (Maybe he was just being polite.) I showed him the books; he was impressed. I asked him politely if he would mind taking them to Leonard and getting them signed; he said he would see what he could do. He went inside with the books. A few minutes later, he emerged again. Each of the books was now inscribed with Leonard’s unmistakable signature, making me a very happy Cohen fan indeed.

Apart from his non-performing appearance at the Barbican last year (he also sat through the whole of Philip Glass’s Music In Twelve Parts the following day, which is more than can be said for some), that was the last time I saw Cohen until last Thursday in Bruges.  If it hadn’t been for his well-publicised financial troubles, it’s unlikely he would ever have taken to the stage again. But I’m very glad he did, for this was a concert with an overwhelming emotional presence at its core. We waited two hours in intermittent rain outside, a worthwhile wait indeed since it meant we were able to stand right at the front – an unexpected bonus that made the concert doubly enjoyable.

Leonard Cohen songs are like mansions – huge, elegant and perfectly constructed, with vast tracts of space for the visitor to explore. They are songs that, alone, justify the popular song as an artistic form. Moving far beyond the singer-songwriter trope, Cohen’s music is a highly appealing form of central European folk, with clouds of acoustic and percussive invention augmented by achingly perfect vocal harmonies and touches of countryish electric and pedal steel guitar. It’s tasteful, yes, but it’s also possessed of an enormous emotional impact. And the words, even those that are “dead and flat” on the page, resonate with an elemental, often overtly erotic charge.

I could certainly have done without some of the hokier aspects of the performance, such as the frequent and completely unnecessary introductions of the other musicians in the band. But every time the 73-year-old called time on a song and flashed one of his beautifully open and sincere smiles, one’s awareness of all the slickness and the choreography fell away and one was left with the knowledge of witnessing a performance of extraordinary charm, lyricism and grace.

Philip Glass: Book of Longing, Music in Twelve Parts, London Barbican Centre, 20-21 October 2007

Back from a short trip to London, the main reason for which was to attend two concerts at the Barbican in honour of the 70th birthday of Philip Glass. The first was Book of Longing, a collaboration with another of my musical heroes, Leonard Cohen. The pre-concert talk was remarkable in the fact that it was the first time I had seen Cohen in person for 14 years, since his last London concert at the Royal Albert Hall. It was interesting, but I don’t think Leonard came out of it particularly well, his responses (to some predictably batty questions) being somewhat gnomic and underwhelming. Glass dominated the conversation (before the Q&A, that is), and acquitted himself much better.

The Book of Longing concert itself was excellent. Again, it was Glass who came out with his credibility intact rather than Cohen. With one or two exceptions, these late poems are bitty and inconsequential. Glass’s music, however, gave them a stature I’m not sure they really deserved.

The main event was on Sunday afternoon – a rare performance of Glass’s superb Music in Twelve Parts in all its sumptuous entirety. This piece is a towering achievement in 20th century music. Endlessly vital and kaleidoscopic, it was performed magnificently by Glass and his ensemble.