If the question is what could possibly induce me to visit Quebec in late November with the daytime temperature dropping to -16 degrees centigrade then the answer is quite simply ‘Leonard Cohen’. As for many others, Leonard Cohen has long been both an idol and icon for me and his music has accompanied me through life’s journeys since I first played his debut LP ‘The Songs of Leonard Cohen’ back in 1967 and since Cohen resumed performing 5 years ago I have attended 30 of the 300 concerts he has performed.
Together with Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger, Cohen is one of four giants that emerged in the 60s to change the course of popular music and who are still performing today. It is ironic that whilst Cohen was the least successful of the four artists in the 60s and despite being the oldest it he alone who has gathered accolades of outstanding reviews for his work in recent years.
Leonard Cohen first toured in 1970 when he gave his famous performance at 4am at the Isle of Wight Festival, which I was fortunate enough to attend. He then toured on a further 8 occasions up to 1993 when he retreated to a Monastery close to Los Angeles for much of the following five years. It was during this time that his Manager appropriated the majority of his assets, allegedly leaving Cohen down to his last $100,000. It is common belief that this was the reason behind his decision to resume touring in 2008 at the age of 74 however his manager Robert Kory advised me that this was not the case as he had already restored much of Leonard’s financial health by that time.
Even if the genesis of the tour remains blurred the results are unquestioned because under the masterful stewardship of Leonard’s new Manager and Lawyer Robert Kory the tour has been an ongoing triumph. Initially planned to encompass some 32 venues in Eastern Canada, Britain and Ireland over the late Spring and Summer of 2008 the tour was extended to include 19 dates in Europe then in response to an unprecedented demand from fans who could not get enough of Cohen, the tour seemingly took on a life of its own. It was extended time and time again and continued until December 2010 to include some 256 performances around the world. This averaged out at a concert every three and a half days even allowing for a six month interim whist Cohen recovered from a strained back. So it seems that after his 15 year hiatus this wandering gypsy is again very much at home with being on the road for most of each year.
The tour won numerous awards for being the ‘Best concert of the Year’ in several of the countries it visited and attracted outstanding reviews wherever it went. And despite having attended many of these concerts the chance to see the Master return and perform in his home town was an opportunity that could not be scorned so I found myself braving the sub-zero temperatures for concerts in Montreal and Quebec.
As a nation Canada has a lot of strengths. The people are courteous and worldly, the scenery impressive and Canada has a strong musical heritage. No one can deny that Neil Young, Celine Dion, Diana Krall and Shania Twain are all near the summit of their particular musical genre whether it be Rock, Pop, Jazz or Country. However the cities of Eastern Canada generally have little to distinguish them but Montreal and especially Quebec are exceptions.
Old Montreal has many impressive buildings and in the 30 years that have passed since my last trip to the city the adjacent Old Port area has been tastefully restored as an attractive recreational area. Before visiting Montreal I was not aware that there was virtually another city underground with a network of passages and walkways connecting the various underground malls, shopping centres and Metro stations. This was particularly useful when it enabled us to descend from our hotel and walk all the way to the concert venue several blocks away rather than brave the arctic temperatures above ground.
The Montreal concerts were held in the cavernous Bell Centre, an arena of similar size to London’s famous O2. It was configured to hold about 15,000 and was virtually full the first night with about 80% capacity on the second night. Although the new 2012 tour has been marketed as the ‘Old Ideas’ Tour following the release late last year of Cohen’s 12th and latest studio album in truth the concert only features 5 songs from that album. With regards to his set list, Cohen is fairly conservative, relying on a body of 30 songs for the current tour with another half dozen being added or dropped here and there. But on the second night in Montreal Cohen unveiled his gift to the people of his home town; a haunting cover of ‘La Manic’ by Georges Dor, one of the great Quebecois Chansonniers. ‘La Manic’ is considered to be the most successful song ever recorded by a local singer songwriter and the audience truly appreciated this moment.
A Cohen concert is a very personal experience wherever he performs. Every audience member always feels as if they have been on their own personal visit with Leonard in part because of his humble acknowledging and thanking the audience as if each is an individual friend and indeed Cohen always addresses the audience as ‘Friends’.
If any artist on the planet is deserving of the term “Renaissance Man’ it is surely Leonard Cohen. Few people realise that Cohen was a national figure in Canada as a writer and poet before he started singing. Because of this background it is clear Cohen thinks very carefully about his use of language – with not a word wasted and each part of a carefully constructed sentence. This is complemented by Cohen’s unique speaking voice which is so slow and thoughtful that it makes every person feel Leonard is talking to them personally. With a voice that resonates with sincerity and thoughtfulness I often think that audiences would be equally spellbound if Cohen read the local Telephone Directory out loud. Such is the power of his delivery and the respect that audiences have for his words that when Cohen recites his famous poem ‘A 1000 kisses deep’ during the Montreal concerts you could hear a pin drop as the audience hung on every word.
After two Leonard Cohen concerts and almost 5 days in Montreal we took the train from the Central Station, located fortuitously under our hotel and followed the St Lawrence River out of the city. After recently spending several days on the Trans Siberian railroad it seemed as if the three hour journey to historic Quebec City passed in a heartbeat and before long we had arrived at the historic Gare du Palais. After gathering our bags from the train’s baggage car we caught a taxi to our hotel in the Old Town. The Château Frontenac dominates the skyline and looks out over the river. The last time we visited this famed hotel was on our 1st Wedding Anniversary 30 years ago and it was a pleasure to return to the striking wood panelled hallways and slow but beautiful gold leaf elevators.
With its narrow cobbled streets and historic buildings Quebec City’s Old Town could almost have been dropped straight into Quebec from Europe. Despite the temperature we took the time to explore parts of Old Quebec; looking down over the river from the famous Dufferin Terrace outside our hotel and making our way around the shops and galleries that surround the Place Royal before the cold eventually drove us inside for some French Onion soup and hot chocolate. But our visit to Quebec City had never been about Winter sightseeing or good food. And although we enjoyed what we saw of this unique outpost of Francophile culture in North America we had come to enjoy our final Leonard Cohen concert in Canada.
We had good seats dead centre about 4 rows back and although still a big crowd there was a more intimate feel than in Montreal and the audience was more vocal and energetic. With the concert starting soon after 8 and finishing close to midnight (with a half hour interval) there were three and a quarter hours of performing and 30 numbers in total including two solos by his back up singers the Webb Sisters and Sharon Robinson.
Singing with him since 2008 the British sisters Charley and Hattie Webb are the perfect foil for Cohen when duetting with him in ‘Take this Waltz’ and their delightful harmonies provide one of the highlights of the evening when giving a haunting interpretation of ‘If it be your Will’.
Sharon Robinson first sang with Cohen in 1979 and in recent years has collaborated with him and shared writing credits with him on the albums Ten New Songs and Dear Heather and earlier in her career on ‘Everybody Knows’ and ‘Waiting for the Miracle’. Cohen always attracts talent of the highest echelon and Robinson is a Grammy award winning songwriter and her voice dovetails beautifully with his, coating it like a glove, when singing My Secret Life.
Throughout his performances Cohen makes a concerted effort to show appreciation to his devoted fans. Bowing to his audience respectfully with a hand on his heart after every song and always removing his trademark fedora are his way of expressing gratitude and indeed at many of his concerts he thanks his audience ‘for keeping my songs alive all these years.’ And he means it – these are not words of platitude and his words always appear sincere and meaningful. It is no wonder that Cohen audiences love their man in return.
As far as keeping his songs alive is concerned his fellow artists have certainly done their bit as well in this regard. There must be as many cover versions of Hallelujah as there are of Yesterday and well over 1000 cover versions of his songs have been recorded by other artists whilst tribute albums and tribute concerts have been produced and performed around the world.
For a man whose destiny it is to be forever associated with the word depression Leonard Cohen is a witty performer and despite his status as a poet and writer he can never be accused of taking himself too seriously. In Montreal he described how he struggles out of bed in the morning, wanders across the room to find the mirror, stares into it and poking fun at his own reputation comments ’Lighten up Cohen’. And the audience in Quebec City chuckle at Cohen’s already immortal self descriptive line from Going Home: “He’s a lazy bastard living in a suit’ which he delivers with a wry smile and hint of a wink.
So whilst much of the world will still think of Cohen as ‘The Bard of the Bedsits’ writing music to slit your wrists by, the reality of a Leonard Cohen concert could more accurately be described an entry ticket to a showcase of song writing and musical excellence that is a very an uplifting experience – partly because of the musical content and partly in admiration and shared pleasure at what Cohen has achieved.
At the age of 78 his body quite likely does ‘ache in the places where I used to play’ much more than almost 25 years ago when he first wrote these words but his is an object lesson on how to grow old with class and humility.
Leonard Cohen Concert in Quebec – Lessons from a Master – words and photography by Michael Bromfield
Michael Bromfield was the founder and Chairman of a major international Travel Company for 31 years until he sold his company in 2011 and has been attending rock concerts and festivals regularly since he saw the Beatles and Stones live in the early 60s. He now devotes his time to writing and photography and divides his time between homes in Switzerland, Canada and the USA as well as spending part of each year in the Himalaya and Thailand. His photography is on permanent exhibition at the Global Images Gallery, Sherborne, Dorset in the UK and can be viewed at www.globalimagesgallery.com Michael writes a series of occasional articles on Remarkable People, Memorable Events and Fascinating Destinations from around the world which can be read at www.notesfromanomad.net and he can be followed on twitter @notesfromanomad