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Leonard Cohen – Can’t Forget: A Souvenir of the Grand Tour [TrackList follows] – Columbia/Legacy /Sony Music/Old Ideas

Leonard Cohen – Can’t Forget: A Souvenir of the Grand Tour [TrackList follows] – Columbia/Legacy /Sony Music/Old Ideas 507416, 48:35 [5/12/15] ****:

(Leonard Cohen – vocals, guitar; Rafael Bernardo Gayol – drums, percussion; Alkexandru Bublitchi – violin; Roscoe Beck – upright and electric bass; Neil Larsen – Hammond B3 organ, keyboards; Javier Mas – bandurria, guitar, laud; Sharon Robinson – vocals;  Mitch Watkins – guitar; Charley Webb – guitar, backing vocals; Hattie Webb – harp, backing vocals)

The post-tour live album is a customary offering. Artists go on the concert circuit, tape the shows, and once the miles have been logged there is the obligatory reminder of what transpired in nightclubs, arenas or auditoriums. Audience members can re-experience the moments they cherished; and those who couldn’t go to the performances can hear what they missed. The 48-minute, 10-track Can’t Forget: A Souvenir of the Grand Tour is the fourth live release songwriter/singer Leonard Cohen has disseminated since he returned to stages in 2008. It’s preceded by 2009’s Live in London (a DVD or a 2-CD set which documented Cohen’s 2008 appearance at London’s O2 Arena); 2010’s CD/DVD, Songs from the Road (which showcased Cohen’s 2008 and 2009 live shows); and 2014’s Live in Dublin (a 3 CD + DVD set which captured Cohen in 2013 at Dublin’s The O2 Arena). Can’t Forget is leaner than Cohen’s aforementioned live archives, and is distinctive in other ways as well. It collects six of Cohen’s previously issued tunes; but also has two new blues-hued songs; and two obscure but effectively-chosen covers. The music comes from 2012 and 2013 dates, but five of the tracks are from sound checks, so it’s doubtful most Cohen aficionados have heard them.

While Can’t Forget may not be as conspicuous as other Cohen live releases, in some important aspects, it’s better or equal to others. One reason is Cohen’s voice. Even as he hits eight decades (he turns 81 later this year), Cohen has a well-honed vocal style. He may not be as supple as he was in his youthful days—but then again, he was never an unflawed vocalist—but he still has a notable vocal quality: especially his weathered but warm tone and lingering phrasing; and retains an emotional pull. He remains one of the most honest and affecting singers of his generation. Another reason Can’t Forget is outstanding is the coherence and cohesion. Despite material which comes from ten different locations, there is a definite flow and progression without any sense of various venues. That’s because Cohen is in top-form on each piece. But it’s also a testament to Cohen’s backing group, nicknamed the Unified Heart Touring Band, which provides a sure foundation to Cohen’s lyrics and presentations.

Can’t Forget was not programmed for neophytes. If someone is hoping for a greatest-hit live collection, this is not it. Longtime followers will probably get the most from this CD, and the unheard or relatively uncommon cuts will be of maximum interest. The first cover, “La Manic,” was evidently done specifically for the crowd who attended Cohen’s 2012 Quebec appearance. It’s a moving rendition of Georges Dor’s big 1966 radio single. Dor was a popular Quebec songwriter who died in 2001. It’s an apt pick. Cohen croons in the original French with appropriate support which includes violin, guitars, understated keyboards and simple vocal harmonies. The second cover is George Jones’ “Choices,” which is from a 2013 New Zealand sound check. This is not a throwaway, because Cohen regards his sound checks as mini-concerts before his concerts. Rather, “Choices” is a fully-realized arrangement which combines soul and country, similar to what Jones did.

If country seems an odd option for Cohen, it’s not. His deep voice makes the most of lines about “living, dying, with the choices I’ve made.” It’s an impressive moment. Cohen’s new compositions are steeped in the blues. He’s used the basic rudiments as a touchstone, but here he seeps into Chicago-tinted electric blues. His voice doesn’t drip and dig into the lyrics like Muddy Waters or Howlin’ Wolf, but he does well enough. Both of these were also done during sound checks, so this may be the first time a good number of people will hear them. “Never Gave Nobody Trouble” is a sultry and slow 12-bar blues, where Cohen intones how rich men on yachts must navigate garbage-strewn waves, just as poorer folks must trod through life’s trash. The lightly gospel-ish “Got a Little Secret” lacks sonic coloring and responsive shading, but is worth consideration. Cohen has a history of reworking his own music, so this may eventually shape into something with more gravity.

The rest of the set list is stimulating. Cohen opens with an intricately arranged version of “Field Commander Cohen” (which has an incongruous tidbit of the Andrews Sisters’ calypso hit, “Rum and Coca-Cola”) and a country-tinged run through the soulful “I Can’t Forget” (from Cohen’s 1988 studio outing, I’m Your Man). Both tunes sparkle with gossamer backing vocals and lithesome acoustic string instruments. Cohen, however, surpasses himself on the subtly brilliant “Light as the Breeze,” where passion, desire and hope commingle in a feeling one can almost taste and touch. Cohen stays strong on another ‘80s song, “Night Comes On,” from his 1985 LP, Various Positions. Cohen has finely ripened this over the decades, and it’s become both a fan favorite and one which demonstrates his first-rate intonation and nuanced phrasing. Another highpoint of any Cohen program is the religious and historical character study, “Joan of Arc,” which goes back to 1971’s Songs of Love and Hate. The adaptation here comes from a Quebec sound check. Thank goodness Cohen saved this recording. It’s harrowing, beautifully concentrated and is a wonderful duet between Cohen and musical partner Hatti Webb. Diehard Cohen fans have no doubt listened to this piece many times, but Cohen’s keenly-etched lyrics and this refined arrangement make this track an acute highlight. Cohen displays his droll wit and storytelling charm on the closing “Stages,” with a humorous and philosophical introduction about growing older. “Stages” alludes to, and reshapes, part of Cohen’s “Tower of Song,” also from I’m Your Man. The ending fades out instead of cascading to a definitive conclusion. Which is ironic since Cohen obviously has no plans to fade away from sight. He’s in the third phase of his career—issuing studio albums such as 2012’s Old Ideas and 2014’s Popular Problems and continues to tour—with no apparent slowdown in the near future.

TrackList: Field Commander Cohen; I Can’t Forget; Light As the Breeze; La Manic; Night Comes On; Never Gave Nobody Trouble; Joan of Arc; Got a Little Secret; Choices; Stages.

—Doug Simpson

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