Leonard Cohen at Leeds First Direct Arena
LOVE IS THE ONLY ENGINE OF SURVIVAL a review of Leonard Cohen at Leeds First Direct Arena by Walter Grumpius …
At school back in the late 1960s, in the lower sixth form common room, I remember being part of a collective that clubbed together to buy what was certainly my first LP – and I can picture it still with its Heath Robinson-like drawing of a strange record playing machine on the front cover – entitled ‘The Rock Machine Turns You On’. It was a CBS sampler and had the attraction of being a lot cheaper than regular albums of the time. I had heard, or heard of, most of the singers and groups on the disc but one was completely unknown to me. That artist was Leonard Cohen and the song was Sisters of Mercy.
I began to understand the meaning of the word ’mystery’ that day. What on earth was the song about? It seemed to be about things beyond my reach, but more pertinently, beyond my understanding. As soon as I had money of my own Songs of Leonard Cohen and Songs from a Room were amongst the very first of my record collection. Other Cohen records followed in due course. But until Saturday evening at the First Direct Arena, I had never seen the man in concert.
It was gratifying to see quite a few people in the audience whose parents had probably yet to be born when Cohen released his eponymous Songs in 1968. I wondered which stage of the great singer’s career had attracted these youngsters? But for a great many of us who passed along Clay Pit Lane I suspect the path that led us there began 45 years or so ago.
Any history of music is bound to include a chapter on the impact of recording. Before the twentieth century, if you wanted to hear music, you had to attend a performance. In its turn any history of recorded music is bound to linger on that glorious period – almost certainly restricted to the twentieth century – when recordings meant vinyl and collecting entailed physical objects of desire, discs (mainly 7” and 12” in diameter) with their labels and sleeves which, like books, could embellish a room. Looking back one can see how these collections helped to define one’s adolescent and early adult identity. We are not talking here about collections acquired retrospectively and often thematically after the fashion of an antique collector, but of records acquired at the time of release, of a collection accumulated in real time with a degree of the haphazard and the exploratory. In this inchoate way most musical tastes surely develop.
I went along to the Arena with a degree of expectation anxiety but needn’t have fretted. Towards the end of the concert Cohen sang self-referentially, “I love to speak with Leonard/ He’s a lazy bastard living in a suit”. In the interests of accuracy it is necessary to take issue with his use of the word ‘lazy’. This was not the performance of a lazy man. Lasting well beyond three hours and probably only curtailed then by curfew regulations, it was easy to forget that this was a 79-year old. Far from being the suicidal curmudgeon of ill-informed legend Cohen is an engaging and witty man. He endeared himself to his audience from the very first moment when he apologised for the cost of the tickets, acknowledging the chasm it would have left in household budgets. He promised however that he and his band would give their all and they did. Barely pausing for breath, apart from a twenty-minute interval, they performed about thirty of Cohen’s songs, with a sufficient spread of the early ones to satisfy those who have not kept up (Bird on a Wire, Suzanne, So Long Marianne, Famous Blue Raincoat).
Leonard Cohen spent a lot of the concert on his knees, a position which seemed at first a little odd, even awkward and incongruous, but after a while began to make sense. Partly it may be a posture of prayer, for there are times in his lyrics when he can sound almost like an Old Testament prophet or St John the Divine with the apocalyptic visions in, for example, The Future, or Anthem, his fear that it may be too late for repentance. But for Cohen the divine is also contained in love. He is on his knees to love in a mood both of pleading and of thanksgiving. It is clear that his key to salvation is love. “Every heart, every heart/ to love will come/ but like a refugee”, he sings in Anthem. Cohen is above all a poet singer of love, a troubadour, a Dante for our times.
His subject is love in all its moods and manifestations: sacred, profane, yearning, heartache, lust, purification, glory, humiliation, celebration, disillusion, loss, memory, mystery and ultimately as a sacrament and instrument of salvation. As well as kneeling in awe of love, you sense perhaps too that there is an act of homage towards music itself. Throughout the concert he was at pains to highlight his musicians. The band was a perfect foil and complement to Cohen and it was evident that it had been assembled with exquisite care. Javier Mas from Spain plays a variety of oud-like instruments and his extended instrumental introduction to Who By Fire was one of the highlights of the evening. The violin player Alexandru Bublitchu, guitarist Professor Mitch Watkins, and keyboard player “the peerless” Neil Larsen added fresh texture and arrangements to well-known songs. The choral trio was long-time collaborator Sharon Robinson and a pair of sisters from Kent, Charley and Hattie Webb, who provided Cohen’s trademark ‘choir of angels’ backing and towards the end of Tower of Song he went into transcendent mode, not wanting them to stop their chanting so moved was he, at one point imploring, “just twice more”.
Although he is the singer and the songwriter, he acknowledges fully that it is the band who give the songs heft and substance. This was very noticeable soon after the interval when he sang Suzanne and Chelsea Hotel without his crew. The voice – that voice – so on form during all the other songs, seemed to falter. Phrases were lost, words submerged. But it was just a temporary glimpse of frailty. There were so many highlights but to pick one out it would be Anthem, which ended the first half of the concert with its marvellous chorus of hope, “Ring the bells that still can ring/ Forget your perfect offering/ There is a crack in everything/ That’s how the light gets in”.
A word on the Arena itself. This was my first time up close and in its working clothes, and although I remain to be convinced that it is a thing of beauty, it is an arresting structure and in terms of its function can scarcely be faulted. The forecourt is spacious and attractive; the entrances, exits, internal stairs and foyers are generous and clearly navigable. The stewards were numerous and those we encountered were charming and helpful. A brief survey of the bar proved disappointing; nothing there to detain the discerning drinker. Inside, the auditorium is a cavernous space, the walls and floor bare of any decoration beyond the purely functional. This is clearly to aid the acoustics and here the design has achieved everything it set out to do. The sound on the evening was almost beyond perfect. Musicians will have to work very hard to match it; as quoted above, it may be easier if there’s a crack in everything. The stumble in Cohen’s vocal mentioned during Suzanne may have been masked if the acoustics had not been so good but here was emphasised. Happily Cohen’s band was beautifully balanced, each instrument defined and crisp and the voices clear and blended. The staging too was good. As you might expect for such a singer, the lighting was unobtrusive but effective. During The Partisan for example, the stage and musicians were bathed in a metallic grey whilst the curtains draped to either side of the stage were lit in a lyrically appropriate blood red.
This will not be a venue suitable for every artist but Leonard Cohen, having taken Manhattan and Berlin, had the charisma and songs and supporting musicians to take also Leeds.Tags: First Direct Arena, leeds, Leonard Cohen