It struck me last night when I was choosing which show to cover, that us San Franciscans are damn lucky to have so many fine live music choices on a Tuesday night. Who needs Coachella when you live in a place as brimming with great live music as the city by the bay. Case in point: last night one had the choice of Green Day’s last minute secret show at The Fox, Fleet Foxes at Fillmore, Devendra Banhart at The Independent, hip-hop superstar Mos Def at Yoshi’s, or Leonard Cohen at The Paramount. For me, the choice was crystal-clear: Leonard Cohen.
It’s been a long time since we’ve had the honor of seeing Leonard Cohen perform in the Bay Area. He was aware of the passage of time as well. He confessed as much from the stage, “It’s been quite a while since I’ve stood up on a stage, maybe 14 or 15 years, I was 60 years old… just a kid with a crazy dream.”
Even though tickets were incredibly expensive ($129 for the balcony), his three nights sold out in minutes, and there was a hefty after market on Ebay and Craigs List. Make no mistake – it was money very well spent. And to seal the deal, it supports an important cause – his retirement. This elderly Buddhist monk has only acquiesced to tour the globe because his long-time manager, Kelly Lynch plundered all of Cohen’s retirement savings. Stealing the retirement savings of a beloved singer-songwriter literary monk? There can’t be any good karma in that.
I first became a fan of Leonard Cohen back in the early 80’s. I was obsessed with Echo & The Bunnymen, and when I found out that lead singer Ian McCulloch was an uberfan, I picked up Cohen’s greatest hits and was hooked.
So for me, last night’s concert at The Paramount was an event 20 years in the making. I was fortunate to have a dead center seat in the front row of the balcony that I’d purchased through StubHub at just a few dollars over face price, with a wonderful view of his entire ensemble.
Cohen was backed up by a stellar group of nine musicians. Javier Mas of Barcelona played the bandurria and several other exotic stringed instruments. Bassist Roscoe Beck and guitarist Bob Metzger are long-time Cohen accompanists. Sharon Robinson, his collaborator and companion sang with a golden voice, with many solos of her own. There were two additional background vocalists, the Webb sisters Hattie and Charley Webb. Who would have guessed that these two versatile ladies counted gymnastics amongst their talents?
I’ve heard some reviewers gripe that Cohen didn’t have enough “A-list” material for a three hour performance. Bullshit. Leonard Cohen is arguably one of the greatest singer-songwriters of the last century. I suppose when you’ve written a song like “Hallelujah” that has been recorded by over 40 artists, it sets the bar high. For me, the highlights were “Suzanne”, “Famous Blue Raincoat”, “Hallelujah”, “I’m Your Man”, and “Democracy.”
I think my only complaint was that I wasn’t seeing him perform in front of a UK audience. I can hardly blame Cohen for that. But I can lament that American audiences just aren’t as engaged as our felow-fans across the Atlantic where audience participation is both expected and appreciated. As Cohen sang one of his most famous verses, “Now so long, Marianne, it’s time that we began/ to laugh and cry and cry and laugh/ about it all again” I would have loved to have participated in a venue-wide sing-along.
I was particularly impressed with how Cohen’s performance lovingly and addressed the reality of his aging. He wove little jabs at himself into the performance. In “I’m your Man”, for example, he changed the original “If you want another kind of lover, I’ll wear a mask for you” to “I’ll wear an old man’s mask for you” as he tipped his fedora with an impish grin wide across his wrinkled face.
Cohen possesses the quality that I value most in a performer – Presence. Not presence in the sense of a bigger-than-life room filling personality, but presence in the spiritual sense. When he performs, he is clearly completely in the moment, heart open and accepting. That coupled with Cohen’s lyrical honestly (he’s always been one to take on the big subjects, love, loss, spirituality, death, betrayal, redemption) packs a real wollop. I felt fulfilled but completely spent after witnessing his live performance. I was particularly struck by the mindful manner in which he himself bore witness to the other performers in his entourage. Sharon Robinson, his collaborator and companion, sang a solo version of “Boogie Street” that Cohen watched reverently from outside the spotlight, hat in hand. I love it when a group of performers comes together and works as a whole. Cohen clearly has a touring atmosphere that allows this group magic to happen.
I’m a photographer, not a writer, so I often look about to see if someone skilled with words has summed up an event more succinctly than I ever could. In this case, Gary Kamiya from salon.com has captured it in a nutshell. “For what Cohen offered to us was not just his artistry, but his life — a life played for keeps, an examined life, an artist’s life. Not everyone can write “Famous Blue Raincoat,” but every one of us can try to live a deeper life. Every one of us can ring the bells that still can ring.”
I only had an 85mm 1.4 lens, and was shooting from my front row balcony seat. All my photos were large sweeping shots of the entire stage. If you’d like to see some wonderful close-up images of the night’s performance, Check out Dr. Foxglove’s photoset. I did take a bit of video with my new Flip HD pocket camcorder. I’ve uploaded it to YouTube and embedded it here for your enjoyment.
Leonard Cohen’s April 14th Set List:
“Dance Me to the End of Love”
“Ain’t No Cure for Love”
“Bird on a Wire”
“In My Secret Life”
“Who by Fire”
“Waiting for the Miracle”
“Tower of Song”
“The Gypsy’s Wife”
“I’m Your Man”
“A Thousand Kisses Deep”
“Take This Waltz”
“So Long Marianne”
“First We Take Manhattan”
“Famous Blue Raincoat”
“If It Be Your Will”
Lullaby” That Don’t Make It Junk”
“I Tried to Leave You”
“Whither Thou Goest”