When Leonard Cohen announced in March he was going back on tour I could hardly contain my excitement. After the amazing memories of the previous tour and especially meeting and speaking with him in Las Vegas for another tour to be announced was incredible. After some discussion with my friend as to which European city we would go to we both decided that the idea of having the chance to be at the tour premiere was something neither of us could resist. So it was off to Belgium last Saturday morning for the first two concerts of the tour which were happening on August 12th and 14th. Since the last tour Cohen has released a new album, Old Ideas and also some of the band members have changed so we were very excited to hear the new sound on old favourites and also to hear some of the new songs performed live.
As the concerts were outdoors we were able to take the opportunity to listen to both sound checks and while I am not sure if we heard all of it for the opening concert we certainly did for the second concert. It was an awesome feeling to listen knowing in a few hours we would also witness the magic. Songs we heard on the first sound check included Avalanche (which wasn’t sung live at either concert but both sound checks), The Future, Bird On The Wire and Light As The Breeze.
After sound check my excitement levels were off the scale as we waited the few hours for show time and it was so worth the wait. Cohen and his wonderful band were in fine form and they were as good if not better than in the previous tour. As is traditional with Leonard Cohen in concert he began with Dance Me to the End of Love and the addition of Alexandru Bublitchi on violin really added to the magic on this song and indeed on many songs. After listening to the 1988 tour I was looking forward to the addition of the violin since the announcement was made. I also enjoyed the addition of Mitch Watkins on lead guitar. There was a whole new dimension to the band and while I loved the line-up on the previous tour I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed the new sound. After the first song Cohen thanked us for coming and then said “I think that we’re going to, with the help of G-d and two policemen, we’re going to keep on going to the wheelchair’s rust.” This sounded good to us as thankfully Cohen is still at the top of his game!
Trying to pick individual highlights in a Cohen concert for me is extremely hard as he and the band perform everything to perfection and always give 100% to the audience. However stand out moments of the first half of the concert included when Mike Scoble, Cohen’s tour manager played harmonica during Darkness. I joked to my friend that with his hat and glasses he looked like Van Morrison! Bird On The Wire is always a highlight for me as it is one of my favourite Cohen songs. I Can’t Forget was also stand out as I had never heard it live personally before. It was very special the first night wondering what song was going to be next. There will always be a core set of songs Cohen will perform at nearly all, if not all concerts and I was waiting to see if any of my favourites had got removed after the last tour and I was pleased to hear they hadn’t! Of course if they had I would never complain as Cohen gives us so much each night and since both concerts I attended this week were just under the 4 hour mark I don’t think anyone is in a position to complain about song choice. In fact each night there was 33 songs sung which from a man of 77 that is incredible.
Following on from the previous tour we had the traditional ending to the first half where Cohen performed Anthem with those wonderful lines “Ring the bells that still can ring, forget your perfect offering, there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in” before introducing the band.
After a discussion between friends about what we all thought of the first half where we all agreed it was brilliant it was time to sit back and enjoy the second half of the concert. Also in keeping with tradition Cohen opened the second half with Tower of Song. Featuring Cohen on keyboards it is always such a fun song.
There are many more highlights to take from this; again all songs were performed to perfection. My personal highlight at a Leonard Cohen concert is always going to be Hallelujah. As I have stated many times for me this is the greatest song ever written and I can never get through a Cohen concert without this song reducing me to tears. Sitting watching Cohen sing this live while I watch is something I will never get enough of and I love the added magic by Neil Larson on keyboards. The Partisan was a special moment as Cohen brought the entire band as close as possible to each other and it was good to see Larson down from behind his keyboard with the accordion. Other stand out moments for me included The Webb Sister’s singing If It Be Your Will and Coming Back To You where Roscoe Beck stood behind them with the stand-up bass guitar. The musical director, Roscoe Beck is one of my favourite members of the band. I also loved when during Democracy Cohen played the jew harp which I confess I had never heard of before!
The magical first night was closed with Waiting For The Miracle. It is indeed a miracle that someone of Cohen’s age can deliver such an amazing concert and he puts nearly everyone else on the concert circuit to shame, the only exception I can think of to this rule is Bruce Springsteen who is also legendary at giving long concerts.
After a day of rest it was time for take two and first up was the second sound check. Cohen was on stage for an hour and a half and sang eight songs; going over some a few times making sure they were perfect. The songs included Night Comes On which is one of my favourite Cohen songs but one which he only sang in concert once on the last tour and he didn’t perform it in the concert this time either. He also sang Chelsea Hotel # 2 and Field Commander Cohen during the sound check and at my time of writing he has still to perform these songs in concert. An added dimension to this sound check was that it started raining and the owner of a shop invited us to go to the second floor of his shop where it was dry and more importantly to us we could see the stage from up there. Cohen had left the stage at this point but we were able to witness The “sublime” Webb Sisters singing Coming Back To You and If It Be Your Will. When the offer was made to go upstairs I didn’t even notice what shop we were in until my friend pointed out it was a DVD porn shop. I thought it both genius and hilarious when during the concert she dubbed the shop Tower of Porn after the song by Cohen Tower of Song.
After such a long sound check we were really excited for the concert and what treats awaited us and there were plenty. Once again we were spellbound by a wonderful almost four hours of show time and again nearly every song was a highlight. However Hallelujah aside (of course) I have to say the stand out song was Light As The Breeze. This is a beautiful song from the album The Future and before this tour Cohen has never performed it live so to hear the first ever live in concert version of this song and probably the first ever sound check of it too was amazing. This was sung in the first half and we also heard the only other new song change from the first night, Banjo which Cohen dedicated to the people of New Orleans.
Other first half highlights included and indeed this counts for these songs on the first night too, Javier Mas’ wonderful as always solo on Who By Fire and also hearing Different Sides, my favourite song from the new album Old Ideas. I love the two lines “We come from different sides of a line that nobody drew” and “Frankly I don’t like your tone”. I also loved hearing Bird On The Wire, The Future and Come Healing.
While we didn’t hear any songs not performed the night before in the second half it was still outstanding and when I saw the first concert I wondered how it could possibly improve but it actually did for me. I felt that Sharon Robinson singing Alexandra Leaving was better the second night and I also felt Mitch Watkins was more at ease the second night. This is of course understandable! I was delighted to hear Heart With No Companion sang on both nights and also Crazy To Love You. So Long Marianne is a close second for me to Hallelujah and it is always a highlight at any concert of Cohen’s. Another guaranteed highlight for me is Famous Blue Raincoat. I Tried To Leave You is always special as we get a solo from every musician in this song and Rafael Gayol demonstrates he is an excellent drummer here. Drumming to Cohen’s songs take a special kind of magic as it could easily be overdone but he has it perfected. Cohen rarely sings songs in concert by other artists but a new addition this tour is The Drifters song, Save The Last Dance For Me. This proved to be a popular song to the audience.
I could name every song sung as being brilliant as I love them all and Cohen and his band perform to perfection. It should also be noted the wonderful crew Cohen has as I have never witnessed such perfect lighting and sound as I have at his concerts and I was pleased to see this continued from the previous tour.
Music aside we also have other memorable moments from the first two concerts of the tour. On the first night it was arranged via Facebook that there would be a message for Cohen held up by the front row at the start of the concert and then as many of us as possible would be holding up the Unified Heart symbol in red printed on A4 sheets of paper. The message read “Dear Leonard Thank You For Touching Our Souls With Your Music”. There was another huge sign made by a fan for the encores which we held up when we moved to the barriers that read “Europe Is crazy For You Welcome Back”. Cohen was delighted with this and while thanking us at the end of the night he acknowledged it. On the second night there was much excitement at the front of the audience when just before show time Adam Cohen, Leonard Cohen’s son arrived for the show. Also I loved when during First We Take Manhattan the audience yelled “Then We Take Berlin” for every chorus to the amusement of everyone on stage.
As I reflect back on a wonderful two concerts and write this “War and Peace” report I am so grateful I had the opportunity to attend these concerts. It was a wonderful experience where as usual I went from one emotion to the next in the space of a few seconds. Cohen’s lyric in So Long Marianne is appropriate to me at his concerts “We laugh and cry and cry and laugh about it all again”, sometimes both at once. Next concerts for me are when the tour comes to Dublin in September and after the magic of Ghent I know we are all in for a memorable time and I await that with much anticipation.