Bell: Cohen Concert Not Quite What It Might Have Been
By Mike Bell, Calgary Herald
November 17, 2012 9:03 AM
Leonard Cohen performs at the Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary Friday.
Photograph by: Stuart Gradon , Calgary Herald
Leonard Cohen performed Friday night at the Saddledome. Attendance: 10,000.
“We’re sorry, there’s no more Stella Artois left in the building.”
Seriously, in a structure where Bud and Keith’s are served by the three-litre thirst-buster, to overhear that phrase uttered by a Saddledome employee before iconic Canadian poet extraordinaire Leonard Cohen even took the stage on Friday night was somewhat and in some way heartening.
It seemed to be an indicator that the evening ahead would be one that was, snobbishly, a little bit more about genuine style, taste and, yeah, class.
A three-plus-hour, two-set, with encores show by a man whose words, whose understanding of the art of seduction through intellect and human interaction, have wooed — on his and our behalf — more than a Rat Pack’s worth of conquests in his half-century as an artist certainly furthered those expectations and made his ambling onstage a fashionable 15 minutes late something that was more expected than forgivable.
It also made the evening, itself, that much, well, less satisfying.
No, the Bard of Harlequin, himself, wasn’t a disappointment. The 78-year-old treasure was, probably, everything you could hope for were you to plunk down your dough — in fine, deep voice, elegant appearance and slow but purposeful crooner presence, singing into the mic as if it were able to wilt and swoon, and bending on his knees to plead and lie for forgiveness, understanding and one more conjugal night. Yes, his between-song talk was as far from improv as one could get, but it was at least likable and exactly as classy as you’d expect in a Mad Men kind of way.
And the songs, well, unless you were of the hardest to appease, he missed little, ticking off the classics, old and new, one by one, from opener Dance Me To the End of Love, The Future, Bird on A Wire and In My Secret Life to second-half notables such as Tower of Song, Waiting For the Miracle and, of course, Hallelujah.
Even his band was exactly as it should have been, backing the master with instrumentation that was as respectful to the man as it was the material. The female backups — Sharon Robinson and Webb Sisters, Charley and Hattie — were simply smouldering. And the musicians, they were, to a member, wonderfully, stunningly unassuming in the romantic execution, shining when given the light.
The main problem is that all of what Cohen brought to the barn — all of that history, talent and technique — was dulled by the structure itself, by its behemoth, by the fact that subtlety, the one thing relied upon to truly sell that style and class, was almost instantly lost in its rafters, killed by an arena setting that sat 10,000 quietly rapt and reverential but seemingly less so from delivery than expectations and familiarity.
The sound mix was fine — far from muddy — although, perhaps a little on the quiet side, allowing even audience mumbles to intrude on those treasured songs and allow a quick, almost unconscious exit.
Which, ultimately underscores the disconnect or disconnection that the un-theatre allowed for far too often throughout the evening. It was remarkably easy to find yourself outside of the songs and performances looking inside longingly or merely not caring at all.
Space and distance will do that. And as solid as he may still be, Cohen simply couldn’t sustain a bridge to that gap, nor should he really be expected to.
Yes, there were moments when everything came together, everything coaxed you to fully submit, such as, ironically, the quiet first set spoken-word performance of A Thousand Kisses Deep, which was so nakedly about the voice and the poetry you couldn’t pull away.
And musically, the early second-set offering of Suzanne and a swinging, ho-downy take on the track Democracy were highlights, strutting out of the predominantly sombre, one-note song list — dull is far too strong a word, but not entirely off the table — to leave a lively and lasting impression.
But those were the exceptions, with other, more powerful Cohen songs not always delivering on the promise they may have shown.
The extended Spanish guitar intro to Who By Fire, for example, was tasteful but not entirely tasty and certainly didn’t carry with it a great deal of heat. And when the baton was finally passed to the master, when he uttered the first words of the song, yes, there was that thrill of recognition, that Casanova-Pavlovian response to material that still has its timeless aphrodisiac abilities, but they were as fleeting as anything of even half its artistic staying power.
It really is odd, because for all that the evening had going for it, it somehow wasn’t what it should have been, perhaps given a better chance, a better setting, a better, more intimate home.
There was style, there was taste and there was class, and yet there was a whole lot more that was lost inside of the building.
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