Last night was Leonard Cohen's second stop of his never ending tour at the Summer Festival in the genteel Northern Tuscany city of Lucca. The first was in 2009. He made it to Piazza Santa Croce in Firenze in 2010.
"Draw us near
Bind us tight
All your children here
In our rags of light"
You know the story already. Back in 2008 Leonard Cohen took to the road again after a 15 year hiatus in order to remedy dire financial straits brought about when his assistant Kelly Lynch siphoned his retirement fund. When he stepped back onto the stage that spring for those early Canadian and British dates little did he know that Lynch had done him – and us – a favour. Reassured he still had an audience, the experience sparked a creative renaissance realised in 2012s Old Ideas album and triggered an appetite for live performance that he claims never to have felt before.
Lucca has it all – quaint charm, gentility and and sophistication, in spades. The grand Piazza Napoleone (so named because Napoleon once ruled this city) is a spectacular setting for the event and as we strolled to soak up the atmosphere we were fortunate enough to witness the 5pm sound check. A relaxed Cohen dressed in a loose fitting open-necked light grey shirt, but still bearing the trade-mark trilby, led the band through a bouncy I Can't Forget from 1988s I'm Your Man album and a cover of the recently deceased George Jones Choices, neither of which he performed that evening. He stepped back and watched attentively as Sharon Robinson performed a partial Alexandra Leaving and the Webb sisters gave their version of If It Be Your Will an outing. Bidding adieu Leonard explained that they were retiring to the dressing room to get something to eat before the performance proper.
|The Afternoon Sound Check|
A brisk Dance Me To The End of Love opened the proceedings as it has at every Cohen concert for the past 28 years. In terms of song selection the opening set has remained largely the same since 2008 with the addition of a couple of numbers from Old Ideas. Someone was asking if this wasn't getting stale, but the anorak in me is forced to point out that Bird On A Wire has reverted to it's original lyric, Leonard having dropped the pleading “don't cry no more/Don't cry, don't cry, don't cry no more/It's over/It's finished/It's been paid for” which has been a feature of live performances for a couple of decades or more. Musical or lyrical variations provided enough to keep me interested even though the songs remained the same. Special mention has to go to Lover, Lover, Lover which has an astonishingly powerful new groove and a very committed vocal from the man himself.
Of course I was thrilled to hear the Old Ideas songs since I'd never witnessed them in performance. Amen was faithful to the album with Leonard extemporising for emphasis. He had not merely “seen through the horror”, but seen through “this whole damn horror”. The sublimely intense Come Healing - which has reduced me to tears on occasion - was marred by some totally inappropriate audience participation. What sort of ego needs to whistle loudly in the middle of the subdued harmonies? Why did some chat through the entire evening, or spend their time texting or even talking on the phone? At one stage a guy in front of me with his back to the stage had a screamed conversation with someone in the VIP bleachers at the back and was more or less shouting into my face. I just don't get it. Dylan has the right idea. At recent shows he's asked audiences to put away these devices and allow everyone to experience the concert directly first hand. Maybe I'm just getting old and irritable, but audience milling and churning, which is a feature of these types of shows, really got in the way of my enjoyment of the first set.
The energy levels and the volume went up in the second set. Some of the less committed audience members had disappeared leaving those with an attention span, and a touching Sisters of Mercy was a live first for me. I'd witnessed a full band version of Chelsea Hotel #2 at Florence three years ago, here it was an acoustic incarnation. I'd forgotten Heart With No Companion had been resurrected. It took me by surprise. The brisk-paced country shuffle arrangement has always seemed at odds with the lyric to me (“the nights of wild distress/Though your promise counts for nothing/You must keep it nonetheless”), but it was so perfectly enunciated you couldn't doubt it.
I'm Your Man allowed Leonard to be court jester, offering to wear an “old man's mask for you” and doing some outrageous mugging while making his plea, “if you want a father for your child” pointing directly into the front row. His own weakness in this little story of power-play was made clear in the repeated, “you know damn well you can/I'm your man” On the subject of mugging and movements that echo meaning it's worth mentioning here that earlier during a solid performance of Everybody Knows that he placed the back of his hand beneath his nose when he got to, “Everybody knows you live forever/When you've done a line or two” making the cocaine reference abundantly unambiguous.
Tonight Hallelujah was so subdued I could tell that some people didn't recognise it until he got to the chorus and then it slipped by subverting what had become a sing-along on previous tours. People are so used to power house versions of this song that it's almost
universally misunderstood as an anthem of praise. He combined the original lyric with the later re-write so I think we got most verses of both versions. Quite how, “Love is not a victory march/It's a cold and a very broken Hallelujah”, or “It's not a cry you hear tonight/From someone who has seen the light” or “Even though it's all gone wrong/I'll stand before the lord of song/Nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah” translates in some folks heads as celebratory is mystifying. As puzzling as his reputation for writing depressing songs.
I'm not really a fan of Sharon Robinson's melodies on Ten New Songs, but her rendition of Alexandra Leaving tonight is the epitome of style and dignity. Her voice is incredible and she holds the crowds rapt. I can't find words to signify just how intense it was.
We got our chance for a sing-along with So Long Marianne. The audience belted out the chorus and Leonard stood with a broad grin and remarked on our “pretty singing”. He really seemed to enjoy leaving it to us. Going Home, featured in the encore, had Leonard lingering over the opening, “I love to speak with Leonard/He's a sportsman/He's a shepherd/He's a lazy bastard living in a suit” and the audience lapping up the self-deprecating humour. He wrapped up the evening unsurprisingly with I Tried To Leave You. “Here's a man still working for your smile”, the sonorous bass intoned. This was my fifth Cohen concert in as many years and I realised I was working for his and it was more in evidence than ever. After his usual benediction “May you be surrounded by the blessing of family and friends and if you are not, may the blessing find you in your solitude”, we all headed for home happy.