Sunday, May 24, 2009
Cohen & Cockburn: Lions In Winter
I last attended a Leonard Cohen concert in 1994, when he was promoting The Future. The staging and light-show were lush, the band and singers incredibly tight, and Cohen was . . . professional. He delivered the goods and maintained a wryly cheerful demeanor, but let slip the odd sign that this wasn’t his first idea of fun. Midway through the night he botched a lyric (while singing, fittingly enough, “Anthem”). When he realized what had happened, he retreated into the shadows to recollect his nerve. The band played on and when they reached the chorus he stepped back into the spotlight and picked up where he’d left off. Although he joked about his mistake when the song was over (“I’ll leave it for the students of my work to determine what that signifies,”) there was no camouflaging the mortification this had caused him.
Since I’m one such student, I’ll accept the invitation: I thought that moment pretty much revealed the heart of Cohen’s performances at the time. The man — this self-proclaimed “Grocer of Gloom” — embodied the Beckettian ("Beckettesque"?) performer who is compelled to sing, even as the specter of performance terrifies: “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”
The night was certainly angst-laden, and at the time I was in the right frame of mind to enjoy it for that. But fifteen years later, when his agency announced this latest and possibly final global tour, I felt no need to queue up for tickets. I’m not sure I can articulate exactly why I didn’t find the prospect attractive, but certainly part of my hesitancy came from not wanting to see an older man twisted into the same emotional pretzels I’d witnessed earlier.
If Live In London (A) — and every single concert review published since then — are any indication, I needn’t have worried. I also should have bought those damn tickets. Whether it’s through breathing exercises, clean living or tantric sex, whatever knots this guy once had seem to have been untied. He’s lean and flexible as a rope, and he snaps like a whip on stage. His performance has altered and so has the emotional content of his songs. The Beckettian weight isn’t there, anymore; instead there’s something surprisingly light about it all. He’s gracious toward the audience, and he has the necessary poise for taking it all just seriously enough to perform without embarrassment or apology. This may be the end, but rather than depress the man it actually seems to re-energize him. So far, he’s showing no signs of ending the tour until he’s laid out in a pine box.
Now that’s the way to say, “Goodbye.”
I’d ingested roughly a dozen Bruce Cockburn albums before I had my first opportunity to attend a performance. I did not expect what I saw. The guy was funny, and he was clearly having a high time. Judging by his lyrics I’d say Cockburn has no shortage of angst in just about every other avenue of life, but the stage ain’t one of ‘em. Where Cohen might have experienced existential angst over public performances, for Cockburn the stage seems to have always held the opposite: some grand, possibly divine affirmation of who he was and what he ought to be doing.
It can be different for the audience, however. Fans of both performers have cause for some personal anxiety: Cohen and Cockburn have occasionally been frank in their dismissal of the crowd-pleasing faves that larded their pantries. Particularly with a songwriter as prolific as Cockburn, it’s an open question whether or not older material still has any value to the man who wrote it. Cockburn doesn’t bother with songs that no longer interest him, so one of the delights in his recent live album, Slice O Life (A,e) is the song list.
The other delight, of course, is in the performance. The shows I’ve seen usually include a short set with just Bruce and his guitar, but he finally relies heavily on the band he’s assembled. Listening to this double-disc, the very idea of a band quickly seems superfluous. Cockburn’s technique as a guitarist has always been singular, but the space he fills with it during this concert has to be heard to be believed. After all these years he remains joyful in his performance, cracking himself up nearly as often as he does the audience. But his engagement with his own music remains the big draw. This release presents a vibrant lens through which to view a remarkable body of work while whetting the appetite for further additions to it.