Manchester, 17 June - a personal impression.
A day and a half is hardly enough time to let an experience such as Tuesday night's even begin to sink in or take hold, but here are some first impressions. What is still resonating most in my mind's ear is the sheer quality of the sound. The musicians that have "gathered round these songs" (as LC put it) are extraordinary, and the mix is perfect. As has been noted elsewhere, the audience behaved itself, by and large, very well. And the venue was excellent (in all the important respects - others' gripes about the corridors and foyer space are correct, but none of this matters much in comparison with the theatre itself). The sound was utterly luxurious. And so generous. I've been thinking about how to try and describe it, and this is the best I've come up with so far: it was lush without being at all soggy, and it was crisp without being at all brittle. It was smooth without being rounded down. It was as clear and as clean as anything I've ever heard at any sort of live concert, amplified or not. It was outstanding. My only gripe is that I could have taken it 10 per cent louder, but I like my music loud and if turning it up would compromise the quality of the sound I would keep the volume right where it was.
Much has been written elsewhere about Leonard himself. His look, his energy, his voice, his generosity to and evident admiration and respect for his band members and fellow singers, and his deeply enchanting affection for and appreciation of the audience. It was humbling to see such genuine humility in one so so great at what he does. What a rarity that is!
I am an information junkie, so any attempt I might have made at the beginning of the tour to restrain myself from pouring over set lists failed within an hour or two of the opening night. So there were few surprises. The two unexpected additions, or re-additions, of Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye, and of So Long, Marianne, were both delights. Of the two, That's No Way to Say Goodbye was performed with particular power, I thought.
The highlights for me were, in the first set, Ain't No Cure for Love, Who by Fire? and That's No Way to Say Goodbye. And, in the second set, The Gipsy's Wife, Boogie Street, Hallelujah and Democracy. Among the encores, First We Take Manhattan and If it Be Your Will stood out.
I thought that it took everyone, Leonard included, a couple of songs to hit top gear. Dance Me to the End of Love was a great opening, and the band's brilliant solution to the problem I thought they'd posed for themselves by not having a violinist was revealed about a minute and a half into the song. (Dino Soldo was exceptional all night, wasn't he?) But The Future I thought was a tad shaky -- nerves, perhaps? Ain't No Cure for Love, however, was knock-out and was made so, particularly, by the Angels and by the band. I think somebody remarked similarly about this song at one of the Toronto concerts. The rest of the first set, until Who by Fire?, was very good. But then things went stratospheric. Javier Mas' long and quite breathtaking introduction was followed by an immense performance. Leonard had strapped a guitar onto himself for the first time in the evening and he and the band stood almost perfectly still as they sang and played a beautifully, harmonic, arrangement with, even by the standards of this evening, extraordinary power and stunning, controlled passion. It was magnificent. And it was followed, in very similar mood, by That's No Way to Say Goodbye. Anthem rounded off the first set but I have little recollection of it, I'm afraid. I adore it, but I think I was still thinking about the previous two songs to pay it enough attention. There is only so much I can take in at once and this concert was already enormously generous. It just kept coming.
The second set opened with the stripped down Tower of Song and Suzanne that others have written about here. Both were superb, with Leonard on great form. But when the full band came back for The Gipsy's Wife the sound, or so it seemed to me, reached an even more intense level of depth and polish. I absolutely adore this song. I absolutely adore more or less everything on the album it comes from, and as I knew that it was likely to be the only representative from Recent Songs, it was always going to have a special place. But Jesus did it knock my socks off. Someone said early on in this tour that Gipsy's Wife had been included to give Javier Mas a showpiece. Well, for sure, but it was so, so much more than that. After Who by Fire? it was the second moment of sheer wonder and joy for me. And, as in the first set, this moment was doubled when it was followed by Boogie Street. It took me a very long time really to get into this song. In fact, it was not until I heard the cover version on A Feast of Cohen that I really began to see and hear the song's character. But on Tuesday in Manchester it was unashamedly, nakedly awesome. Sharon Robinson was outstanding, and boy could you tell she knew it and was revelling in every note. But, talking of it just keeping coming... this was followed by Hallelujah. In one of the newspapers yesterday it was written that Leonard sang this song like he was trying to reclaim it from Cale, Buckley and the rest. That was precisely what I thought. The energy and now not fully controlled passion that Leonard poured into this song was simply devastating. It wasn't there only in the chorus. It wasn't there only in the chorus and the crescendo. It was there in every beat and in every syllable. His voice was clear, hugely powerful, and, as I say, devastating. A more captivating moment I doubt I will ever see again on a stage. Leonard was extraordinary in this song, as was Neil Larson on the Hammond organ. I have never heard anyone get the sounds out of that instrument that Neil Larson produced during this song. This was followed by a performance of Democracy that, again, I thought was utterly compelling. The whole band was mesmerising, and the slight staccato, or pause, that was added to the "U.S.A." in the chorus added even more power to the song. I'm Your Man followed but, as with Anthem in the first set, I was not fully there to hear it, although I was not fully there to realise that either. I came round in time to tune fully into the recitation of A Thousand Kisses Deep. Contrary to my expectation, this was not simply Leonard speaking into his microphone, but Leonard almost chanting the song -- okay, not quite chanting, but not just speaking, either -- accompanied in a quiet and utterly unobtrusive way by Neil Larson on the keyboards. I can understand why many people report it as being one of the great highlights of this tour.
As for the encores, I enjoyed having So Long, Marianne back in the set but it was First We Take Manhattan that really shone. At that point the band really was happening, Angels included. Two of the Angels, as has been widely reported, saved their best for If It Be Your Will. With Leonard reciting it, and the Webb sisters singing it to their own accompaniment on the harp and guitar (with Neil Larson, yet again, doing a great job in the background), this was one of the most magical moments of the night and could have gone on for an hour or more, as far as I was concerned. Everybody knows that they should record it and release it as a single as soon as this tour is over. Everybody knows they really should. Closing Time, which followed, was about the only song that I didn't particularly enjoy. I adore it on The Future -- indeed, for years it was (with Famous Blue Raincoat) my favourite Leonard Cohen song -- but on Tuesday it was rushed and it seemed to be Leonard who was doing the rushing. He also fluffed his lines at one point, but we all pretended not to notice. I'm glad things didn't end this way, and I Tried to Leave You was far better executed, with every person on the stage having another moment of their own. Sharon Robinson once again proving what an immensely talented singer she is.
This has been a long post, but I've said here only a fraction of what could be said. Every single person on the stage impressed me hugely. It was a sublime night, and I hope my memory manages to hold onto it for a long time. I'm a lucky boy, and will be seeing Leonard twice more on this tour, but Edinburgh Castle and the Big Chill festival are entirely different venues and I anticipate very different experiences at these concerts. Not worse, I hope, but not the same.
I hope everybody who sees Leonard Cohen and his exquisite band on this tour has at least one moment in the concert that makes you think, if you never heard another note, that would be ok, because it quite probably doesn't get any better than this.