A septuagenarian who rocks with grace

LEONARD COHEN Live at the Isle of Wight 1970 (Columbia/Legacy)
LEONARD COHEN Live in London (Columbia)

Leonard Cohen had two concert DVDs in the stores in time for the holiday shopping season – performances separated by nearly 40 years.

The Canadian singer-songwriter, who played Red Rocks Amphitheatre last summer, has been touring for the first time in years, catapulted to rock-star status once again at age 74 thanks to financial problems reportedly caused by a shyster accountant. Coinciding with his U.S. tour dates, Cohen released a concert on DVD (also available separately as a two-CD set) from a UK show.

First, consider the Live at the Isle of Wight 1970, a CD/DVD package that captures a 35-year-old Cohen appearing on the third and final day of a festival that drew a crowd of 600,000 people and near-riot conditions. Kris Kristofferson had gotten booed off the stage, and someone set the stage on fire while Jimi Hendrix was playing. But Cohen strolled on at 2 a.m. and wooed the tired crowd with delicate poetic folk songs like “Bird on a Wire,” “Famous Blue Raincoat” and “Suzanne” backed by a great band that included a then-unknown fiddle player named Charlie Daniels.

 A new hour-plus long DVD documentary presents most of the highlights, (See Cohen with a full head of wavy hair!) while the CD includes the complete performance. Cohen’s fragile singing voice would never be better than this.

Live in London was recorded in 2008 as Cohen staged is first shows in the UK since 1994. Now sporting a fedora and the thin frame of an old man, Cohen performed inside an arena under much more controlled circumstances, and this time around the video footage didn’t sit around for four decades. The set list has just a few songs in common with Live at the Isle of Wight – Cohen has fattened his songbook since those days, penning most of his best work: “First We Take Manhattan,” “Democracy,” “Closing Time.”

Watching him perform the apocalyptic “The Future” this late in the game is an unexpected surprise. “Get ready for the future, baby. It is murder,” Cohen sings, foretelling an age that may be already upon us. “Things are going to slide, slide in all directions. Won’t be nothing you can measure any more.” This is the Cohen that emerged in the ‘90s, no longer a folkie poet but a songwriter who evolved with rock. And a singer whose rough-edged voice, while technically an even more limited instrument than in years past, is better suited to the material, even on the old songs like “Bird on a Wire.”

Thrust back into the limelight against his will, Cohen has essentially paved the way for septuagenarians to rock with grace. Who would have thought he’d still be around to sing “Hallelujah” instead of Jeff Buckley, the young singer who briefly stole the song away from Cohen before dying too young?

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