Tuesday, April 16, 2013

One For the Money, Two For the Show

(Reposted from May 27, 2008 - in honour of LC's unexpected return engagement to St. John's next weekend.)

Well, here it is the morning after the biggest concert weekend St. John’s has ever seen, and it feels like it was all a dream. Two full-length shows by two contrasting giants of the music world—in fact, it was two nights of Bob Dylan, followed by three nights of Leonard Cohen. I enjoyed the Dylan show, but I’ve got to say that the Cohen show was the best concert I’ve ever seen.

It occurs to me that some so-called performers could take a lesson from LC. It was a rare treat to see Bob Dylan in concert and I was thrilled just to be in the audience. In fact, I felt privileged that he would come back here not only for the second time, but also on his birthday, which was the night I saw him. When he and his band took the stage, all wearing dark hats and suits, it took me a couple of minutes to figure out which one was him. We had fantastic seats, but Dylan didn’t do anything to distinguish himself. He stood at his keyboard the entire night, with his back turned to half the stadium, including us. He sang a couple of songs that most people knew (bluesy versions of “Shelter From the Storm” and “Blowin’ in the Wind”), a few more lesser knowns that I recognized, but the rest were relatively obscure. That’s all fine and good, but I couldn’t really tell if he was enjoying himself or not. I did sense a restlessness from the crowd, though, and that speaks volumes for Dylan’s performance skills, which are pretty much nil.

Don’t get me wrong. He’s a pretty good musician, with a unique voice, and a gift for lyrics. He can write strong melodies too, but he didn’t showcase many of those when I saw him. The audience was extremely appreciative of his meager efforts and coaxed him into an encore, though I sensed (much like Ron Hynes whom I saw a couple of weeks ago) that he just wasn’t all that interested in audience reaction or staying any longer than he had to. That’s his prerogative and, again, I enjoyed just being there. I mean, it’s freakin’ Bob Dylan deigning to come to St. John’s, Newfoundland. We should be grateful. And we were. Problem is, he acted as if we should be grateful too.

I understand all about Dylan’s reputation as an artist. And just like “Manny being Manny” in baseball, when Dylan hides under a hat and refuses to play guitar, sing popular hits, or acknowledge the audience in any way, that’s just Dylan being Dylan. We love him for it, but almost in spite of his behaviour. His greatness as a songwriter and pop culture icon is beyond dispute. I just don’t feel like I really SAW Bob Dylan. Or maybe what I saw really was Bob Dylan, who’s a bit of a ghost at the best of times. Either way, I’m glad I went, glad he came, but his show didn’t even compare to Leonard Cohen’s.

Leonard was warm, entertaining, intelligent, witty, self-effacing and appreciative of an audience who adored his every word, lyric, or tip of the cap on stage. From the opening song, “Dance Me to the End of Time” to the 11 or 12-song encore (there were several encores), he was fully engaged with the people who’d paid 80 bucks a ticket to sit in his presence. There were a few songs I would have liked to have heard, but he sang so many of his best tunes that it’s impossible to fault him. “I’m Your Man.” “Take This Waltz.” “Tower of Song.” “Democracy”.” “The Future.” “Suzanne.” And my personal favorite “Hallelujah”. There were so many great songs, and he executed them to perfection, sounding far better than his recordings. Leonard’s voice has just gotten better, deeper, and more resonant as he’s aged. He’s 74 and makes a few jokes at his own expense, but on stage he dances and moves more gracefully than most grandfathers, I assure you.

The audience just hung on his every word. The air was electric, a standing ovation occurring at the end of at least half (if not two-thirds) of the songs. The backup band was absolutely amazing, with everything from a harp and harmonica to a saxophone, keyboards, drums, various stringed instruments that I didn’t even recognize—each played expertly. Leonard kept making sure his band and backup singers were well-recognized, and they were. I could go on for half an hour just about how good Sharon Robinson and the Webb sisters were, but suffice to say they added strength and substance to an already magnificent show. In all, he played for three hours and ten minutes, including a short break, and I’m sure the audience would have stayed for two more hours at least. I, for one, just didn’t want to leave.

So what’s the difference? I think there’s an arrogance that accumulates in the soul of certain performers after they’ve had a measure of success. I mean, Cohen has just as much reason to be full of himself and “artistic” as Dylan, but I’ve always gotten the feeling that Dylan disdains his audience, despises “having” to perform in order to be heard or to make a living. He’d probably be much happier just writing songs and singing them for himself, but it’s hard to sell CDs that way. So he puts up with us and takes our hard-earned money away with it. I don’t mind that I am grateful for having seen him in concert, but I mind that he takes me and you for granted.

Leonard Cohen has always struck me as a man of passion—a spiritual, sensual soul who genuinely loves life and everything it has to offer. He can be sarcastic and funny, of course, quite cutting in fact. But it’s different from Dylan’s hard-edged dislike for the world (or so it seems). I came away from the Dylan show just glad to have seen a legend, but wondering if maybe he could have done more to win me over. That’s what a performer is. I came away from the Cohen show with a huge smile on my face, my wife and I chattering happily about how it was the best show we’ve ever seen. This morning, there’s almost a sense of loss. I wish I could see him again tonight, but alas, the show is all sold out long ago.

It’s like St. John’s made a friend last night that we’ll never see again. Bob Dylan is a passing acquaintance whose like is rarely seen in these parts, while Leonard Cohen leaves you with a song in your heart and a glimpse into the soul of a man who’s always had an aura of mystery around him, much as Dylan has. And it’s not just because Leonard sang songs that most of his audience knew; even the ones I didn’t know (there were at least a couple) were sung with the intent of an offering, a piece of the songwriter going out to a carefully listening audience. We were being sung to and not merely being sung at.

Not to be too harsh, but while Dylan might appropriately claim “I’m Not There,” Cohen winningly suggests, “I’m Your Man.” Dylan’s not the first performer I’ve seen with that kind of arrogance, merely the best. At least he’s earned the right, sort of. But Leonard Cohen’s earned it too, but chooses instead to include us in the celebration of his talent and success, as well as of life and good music. It just doesn’t get any better.

I have had a religious experience that I won’t be forgetting any time soon.


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