WORLD TOUR 2008-2009
". . . and the band is really happening . . ."
– what’s going down up on stage
Text by Steve Wilcox
Photos by Chris Payne
Charley and Hattie (The Webb Sisters), Neil Larsen, Sharon Robinson, Roscoe Beck
Having enjoyed the luxury of co-writing with Leonard, Sharon Robinson is in the enviable position of performing some of her own works. Her history with the material gives her an audience within an audience. That audience now enjoys the luxury of hearing the work as it was originally recorded. That it’s the same voice is unmistakable. The purest examples being “In My Secret Life” and her lead vocal on “Boogie Street”. As shown in the photos, the vocalists are positioned to Leonard's right – and Sharon is closest by, smiling.
Charley and Hattie, The Webb Sisters
Charley and Hattie, The Webb Sisters, are multi-instrumentalists in their own right. On the tour, thus far, however, they have focused on the intricate harmony vocals, both as a duo, as a trio with Sharon, and individually with Leonard; the exception being Hattie plays the Celtic harp in "Who By Fire". During "Take This Waltz" Charley shares the early verses with Leonard while Hattie takes the higher part during the latter verses. When the band members each take a solo during "I Tried To Leave You", Charley and Hattie do so as a duo. It’s an amazingly complex highly charged two-part arrangement that defies description here. One can only assume that Charley and Hattie will be received as hometown heroes once the tour lands in the UK.
Dino Soldo is the most "multi" of the multi-instrumentalist in band. Besides playing the saxophone and other woodwinds, Dino utilizes the Akai EWI4000 Electric Woodwind to provide a variety of woodwind, brass and synth sounds ranging from the reed woodwind on "Dance Me To The End Of Love", to the trumpet on "Take This Waltz" and the Moog-like synthesizer sound throughout "I'm Your Man". Dino, much to the delight of the audience, also plays a lot of blues harmonica. Throughout "Democracy" he initially plays the harmonica part as heard on the original studio recording then continually increases the level of difficulty until it transforms into a wild variation of the original riff - just before Leonard begins each verse.
Dino also plays a wonderful harmonica solo during the newly arranged "So Long, Marianne". He adds second keyboard when sax and harmonica aren't required, notably playing the piano and pizzicato string parts in “Take This Waltz”. Lastly, Dino switches to a resonator slide guitar during "Heart With No Companion" bringing his total instruments played to at least seven. In a moment of lyric-driven comic relief, Dino and Leonard share an intimate glance. On opening night Dino simply smiled and nodded his head to the advance; but on night three he burst into a full belly laugh, quickly turning away from Leonard in an attempt to regain his composure. Either way, the audience loved it.
Bob Metzger, Dino Soldo, Javier Mas
Leonard introduces Rafael Gayol as "our Timekeeper" - a fitting description considering the precision with which Rafael performs his duty. It takes a certain type of drummer to play in this setting; it can be just as hard to do a little as to do a lot. In arrangements that are often slow, quiet and sparse, Rafael’s tasteful percussion compliments the entire “enterprise”. On stage a drummer is often a visual focal point. Rafael, however, does nothing to purposely draw attention his way. Even on “I’m Your Man”, which begins solely with drums, Rafael subtly sets the pace in a most stealthy way. However, when he launches the other musicians into the likes of "The Future", "Closing Time" and "First We Take Manhattan", the beat is heavy and solid.
Neil Larsen spends the evening behind two of the most classic keyboards in popular music - the Hammond B3 and the Wurlitzer EP200 electric piano, the instrument that was fundamental to Supertramp's sound. Leonard's recordings have often included organ parts – but, believe me, not played like this. Previous to the tour I read one article that described Neil Larsen as one of the greatest Hammond organ players in America. The Wurlitzer was actually only played once by Neil, but to great effect, during "That Don't Make It Junk". During "Suzanne" and "Take This Waltz" Neil plays orchestral string arrangements on his third stage keyboard (brand name covered up). He also dials up the famous Yamaha DX-7 electric piano sound required for “Ain’t No Cure For Love” and later pounds out a honky-tonk acoustic piano solo in “Heart With No Companion”.
Javier Mas plays four stringed instruments – 12 stringed guitars, bandurria (similar to mandolin only 6 pairs of strings) and laud (aud, oud) [archilaud is also listed on his bio and, honestly, he may have played it too!]. These instruments are essential and Javier’s mastery of them is apparent to both the ears and the eyes; watching a master at work is half the fun - but in this case, the master appears to be the one having fun. While he plays in all but a couple of songs, the introductions to “Who By Fire” and “Gypsy Wife” each contain long passages by Javier, and he extends to “Everybody Knows” the sound of the original recording. Leonard often moves closer to Javier and intensely watches his rapid finger work.
Being that he was the guitarist on the original sessions, Robert Metzger plays, for all intents and purposes, the original guitar fills throughout "The Future" and "In My Secret Life". Bob's virtuosity and unique highly dynamic plucking style moves to the forefront during solos in "Bird On A Wire" and "I Tried To Leave You". And where would “Everybody Knows” and the country-western drenched “Heart With No Companion” be without his emotive sense for the pedal steel guitar?
“When one with the highest excellence does not strive against his low position, no-one finds fault with him”. If we interpret “low position” to mean low in the musical register, this piece of wisdom applies to bassist Roscoe Beck. Playing electric & electric fretless basses, and upright acoustic bass, Roscoe keeps to the low and keeps it faultless. The fretless bass line he plays on “Gypsy Wife” is the same one that haunts the song on “Field Commander Cohen 1979”. Roscoe switches to acoustic upright bass for “Who By Fire” and again for “Heart With No Companion” maintaining both the audio and visual effect required for any good hoe-down. By virtue of being musical director, Roscoe’s influence permeates every aspect of the soundscape.
If music is as much about the silence between the notes as the notes themselves, Roscoe and all have found balance. The ability to harness this much talent and channel it into so little space has resulted in enormous musical density.
Why write about Leonard Cohen last? Maybe because he spends most of the evening deflecting the crowd's affectionate response away from himself and towards his band members. At the end of each song he typically welcomes the appreciation by extending his arms and then gesturing with open hand in the direction of the various band members, often introducing them again by name. It’s likely Leonard stands as much in awe of this ensemble as does the audience. When it can no longer be denied that the applause is largely directed at him, he removes his hat, places it over his heart, then smiles and bows his head. Whenever one of the evening's many standing ovations occurs, he smiles sincerely and thankfully but then motions calmly to the audience to be seated; often saying gently - "friends, please . . . please sit down".
Leonard plays guitar on "Heart With No Companion", "Who By Fire", and "Gypsy Wife", and finger picks the original riff throughout "Suzanne". He plays his synthesizer once, during “Tower Of Song”, accompanied by all three vocalists and Neil Larsen. As the song faded out in a three-part "doo, dum, dum, dum, da, doo, dum, dum" - Leonard turned to these three wonderful vocalists and begged into his microphone, "Don't stop".
* * *
At the third show, during the intermission, I overheard two women agreeing that it wouldn't be fair to expect all men to be like Leonard Cohen. One of them was my wife. I don’t hold it against her.
Text © 2008 Steve Wilcox. Used with permission.
Photos © 2008 Chris Payne (Charlottetown, May 18, 2008). Used with permission
More photos of the band by Chris Payne