Leonard Cohen – Leonard Cohen Live at the Isle of Wight 1970 – CD & DVD (1970/2009)
Columbia/CMV/Legacy 88697 57067 2 [Release date: Oct. 20, 09]
Performers: Leonard Cohen: vocals, guitar; Charlie Daniels: electric bass, fiddle; Ron Cornelius: guitar; Elkin "Bubba" Fowler: bass, banjo; Corlynn Hanney, Susan Musmanno, Donna Washburn: backing vocals; Bob Johnston: organ, piano, guitar, harmonica
Video: 16:9 color
Audio (DVD): Dolby 5.1; PCM Stereo
Length: CD: 79:46; DVD: 64:07
It has been a banner time recently for Leonard Cohen fans. He returned to touring after nearly a 15 year hiatus and released Live in London, a DVD and a separate double-CD that chronicles one of his 2008 arena shows in England. In 2007 he participated in Philip Glass’ Book of Longing, a song cycle based on Cohen’s poetry and images. Last year, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and this year Cohen continues his worldwide tour, swinging through America.
To cap off a stupendous outpouring of material, Columbia has issued Cohen’s historically important appearance at the 1970 Isle of Wight festival, the third and final installment of the hugely popular UK multi-artist gathering. The music – only a short snippet has ever officially been seen – is getting a multimedia release on October 20th as a DVD/CD package, a vinyl double-LP set and on Blu-ray configuration.
When Cohen performed at the hallowed Isle of Wight festival, he was just three years into his music career with two well-regarded albums and a third on its way. He was not the main act and yet for many who attended the event that had an estimated 600,000 audience, Cohen’s set was a major highlight that showcased Cohen’s admirable humanity, charismatic personality and existential lyrics.
The audio and video was nearly never captured. Documentary filmmaker Murray Lerner had packed up his equipment after frenzied fans had partially burned the stage during Jimi Hendrix’s set but decided to stay. Likewise, Columbia Records’ Teo Macero was ostensibly there to tape Miles Davis’ performance but resolved to oversee Cohen’s live recording as well. To add to the drama, Lerner’s footage went unfunded until 1995 and gradually since then viewers have been treated to individual films on The Who, Davis and Hendrix.
Cohen’s dominant demeanor and captivating charm is highlighted right from the start. The unruly crowd had become a mob, tearing down fences, booing artists off the stage and pelting them with beer cans and commandeering microphones for political tirades. Most people backstage were worried the hippies would turn to outright destruction. At 2 AM in a pitch black night Cohen walked into this volatile scene in a khaki safari jacket and jeans and calmly started a parable about a man at a circus who stands up and suggests each person light a match so everyone can see each other. "Can I ask each of you to light a match," Cohen appeals to the audience, "so I can see where you all are?" Not many responded but it was enough: Cohen had mesmerized the huge gathering and he quietly began singing his opening number, "Bird on a Wire."
The 79-minute CD displays Cohen’s ability to be intimate even when surrounded by a city-sized throng, raptly and easily moving from imagery-laden folk songs to poems, and from anecdotes – about his songs and sometimes concerning the women who inspired his writing – to protest material. During the introduction to "One of Us Cannot Be Wrong" Cohen admits he penned the piece when he was coming down off a drug trip and pursuing a blonde lady he met while staying at New York City’s storied Chelsea Hotel. Later he dedicates "Seems So Long Ago, Nancy" to a girl he knew who killed herself in 1961, and who had no one to turn to for help.
While most tracks are from Cohen’s debut and sophomore albums (Songs of Leonard Cohen and Songs from a Room) there are three new ones that would eventually show up on Songs of Love and Hate. The interpretations of some older cuts are notable. The version of "Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye" has a hymn-like quality on account of Bob Johnston’s sober organ that is played under Cohen’s pensive guitar. "Tonight Will Be Fine" is lengthened and seasoned with a Nashville flavor due to Charlie Daniels’ fiddle, Elkin Fowler’s banjo and Cohen’s unwavering vocals that somehow emulate but do not imitate a honky-tonk twang. Cohen’s most famous song "Suzanne" – unfortunately marred by a crackling audio cord – earns a receptive reaction and is a soothing treatment buttressed by ethereal backing vocals, lithesome organ and Cohen’s melodic guitar.
The DVD is less appetizing, especially for Cohen aficionados. At just over an hour long it has fewer songs than the CD; two tunes ("Diamonds in the Mine" and "Famous Blue Raincoat") are cut apart by interviews and footage of the hippie encampments that encircled the stage; and some material does not follow the set list order. However, Lerner’s film does put the concert – and Cohen’s performance in particular – into historical and social significance. New conversations with Joan Baez, Kris Kristofferson, Judy Collins and Cohen manager Bob Johnston offer a backdrop to what occurred before and during Cohen’s appearance. Cohen, though, is conspicuously absent: it would have been more authoritative to include Cohen’s comments as well. Kristofferson tells how negative vibes led to a poor reception of his time under the spotlight and how amazed he was when Cohen was able to constrain the masses. Collins relates an account of Cohen’s first public rendering of "Suzanne" and the otherworldly dimension the lyrics convey. And Baez mentions how powerful rallying songs such as Cohen’s rendition of "The Partisan" can be: "Music alone can’t change the world," she notes, but asserts that "changing the world without music would be pretty tedious. It is the art that crosses just about any border."
Lerner’s visuals are far from pristine. There are noticeable film scratches and relatively few camera angles. [Difficult to see how much better this would look on the Blu-ray version…Ed.] But he manages to nab several memorable moments. During "One of Us Cannot Be Wrong" there is an effective close-up when Cohen cups his hands together and whistles the melody. And Cohen’s camaraderie with his backing band – dubbed The Army – is caught when a young Charlie Daniels (eight years away from his success with "The Devil Went Down to Georgia") steps up to Cohen’s microphone to contribute his fiddle accompaniment.
The DVD does not have any extras, although the Blu-ray – which was not yet available for review when this article was written – lists bonus interviews.
If you’re a Cohen fan this package is well worth owning. The slightly different arrangements give fresh dimensionality to Cohen’s songwriting and hearing his poetry and confessions yields insights to his work that impart weight to his lyrics and story-songs.
The Songs (audio CD and 2-LP version):
2. Bird On The Wire
3. Intro to So Long, Marianne
4. So Long, Marianne
5. Intro: “Let’s renew ourselves now…”
6. You Know Who I Am
7. Intro to Poems
8. Lady Midnight
9. They Locked Up A Man (poem)/A Person Who Eats Meat/Intro
10. One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong
11. The Stranger Song
12. Tonight Will Be Fine
13. Hey, That’s No Way To Say Good¬bye
14. Diamonds In The Mine
16. Sing Another Song, Boys
17. The Partisan
18. Famous Blue Raincoat
19. Seems So Long Ago, Nancy
The Songs (DVD and Blu-ray):
1. Intro: Diamonds In The Mine
2. Famous Blue Raincoat
3. “It’s A Large Nation”
4. Bird On The Wire
5. One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong
6. The Stranger Song
7. Tonight Will Be Fine
8. “They’ve Surrounded The Island”
9. Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye
10. Sing Another Song Boys
11. Judy Collins Introduces Suzanne
13. Joan Baez On The Isle Of Wight
14. The Partisan
15. Seems So Long Ago, Nancy
16. Credits: So Long, Marianne
Bonus Interviews: Bob Johnston, Judy Collins, Joan Baez, Kris Kristofferson.
— Doug Simpson