Mercedes Benz World, Weybridge
11th July 2009
Mercedes-Benz World was a horrible open-air venue for my third Leonard Cohen concert in a year. Everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance, but 200 yards behind the stage is a tad close to the tracks. As ever, the concert sound was superb in spite of the poor acoustics, wind and rain. We were just five miles away at 4.20, just by Wisley Gardens on the A3, with plenty of time we thought to catch opener Suzanne Vega at 5.45. We’d listened to her first two albums on the way up, and had seen her years ago just as the second was released. That’s when we noticed the queue of traffic in the inside lane. We passed over the M25 motoway which was solid with traffic trying to get onto the A3 for the mile or two to the Mercedes-Benz World turn off. That mile or two took us an hour and a half. Belatedly, Surrey police arrived on motor bikes to help the traffic get off the slip road towards MB World. Completely inept policing, as the traffic couldn’t get off the A3 because the box junction at the top was being blocked by crosswise traffic. Once the two motorcyclists got there it began to move. When we got parked at the far end of the car park, the Sat Nav said we were a mile away. We arrived to hear vague acoustic guitar (presumably Suzanne Vega) in the distance, queued for ten minutes to get into the toilets. The Ladies was in a foul condition that would have made a First World War trench veteran blanch. Swimming in it. We entered the seated area with Leonard Cohen about 30 seconds into the first number. The tickets said food, drink and umbrellas couldn’t be taken into the concert arena, but security checked our bags, felt the bottles and sandwiches, winked and let us in. All for a mere £71 a ticket.
Every Cohen concert has been wonderful. He said he was “Singing in the Wind” as the drapes danced around behind him and we watched the first half in a persistent light drizzle. The set list was little different, the band identical. If anything his voice sounded better and the three backing singers, Sharon Robinson and Hattie & Charley Webb were even better than the last twice. Roscoe Beck deserves a prominent position in the bass player’s hall of fame, but the whole band is as good a live line-up as you’ll find anywhere.
We were afflicted by having a woman in front of us with verbal diarrhoea. She spent the first set standing up every two minutes to look for her partner (who it turned out had been queueing for beer outside throughout; no one’s THAT thirsty!) She was a constant mover, which is disconcerting in a flat seated area, and kept turning to complain that the audience was too quiet. She wasn’t. There was recognition clapping to every song with “Yeah!” This was singularly inappropriate as Leonard’s intoned his spoken intro to In My Secret Life. Her partner arrived with the beer which prompted a continual running commentary on who was playing what. Then in the beatier numbers she clapped completely out of time. Not on the on beat. Not on the off beat. That’s quite hard to do. Finally as she asked for the umpteenth time why the crowd were so quiet the woman next to her pointed out that perhaps they were listening to the music and the words, and added that for many of us listening to the quieter numbers was a trance-like experience. The toilet facilities were early 70s rock festival. Until I watched her, I’d forgotten that speed freaks were the other 70s festival feature. In her case I think it was adrenalin and excitement rather than little blue pills, and at least she thoroughly enjoyed her evening.
The interval meant buying the Sharon Robinson CD I’ve been looking for a year. It’s just been re-released. The T-shirt stand took £15 for it and a swingeing £12 for the new Webb Sisters self-published five-track EP. The Leonard Cohen track, If It Be Your Will is live in concert (From Live in London? That cuts it to four if you already have it. The track titles are different when you import them into iTunes too. On the other hand I played their album non-stop last year, so they’re worth every penny, even if the MP3 version online is a mere $3.98.
My old drama tutor used to call the British affection for open-air Shakespeare in the summer “Whimsy-cult in the wet.” The British summer regularly keeps its worst for the festival / outdoor concert season, and after the interval it rained steadily through the second set, eventually pissing down as it came to an end. Leonard’s hat was wet. He kneeled to wipe Javier Bas’s guitar (or possibly banduria, laud, or archilaud) dry with a handkerchief. Charley Webb, on the outside line of three backing vocalists was catching a lot of rain.
In the first half, I wondered about the large revolving Mercedes three-pointed star above the stage, especially as he hit the line in The Future, I’m the little Jew who wrote the Bible. In the second half the Mercedes star was spotlit and glimmering. I drove a Mercedes for ten years so can’t knock it (except that mine died of rust) but my dad, who was driving when Richard Dimbleby entered Belsen and broadcast his description would never have driven a Mercedes. OK, sixty four years is a long time, but that was the badge on Hitler’s limo and I wondered if the irony had struck Leonard. Maybe it’ll appear in the lyrics on the next album. Maybe he drives an S-class. Who knows?
If It Be Your Will, when Leonard stands hat in hand, humbly watching The Webb Sisters, who play guitar and autoharp, accompanied by Neil Larsen on keyboards, is the high point of the show. He must know that, placing it as third encore.
We got a touch of that Woodstock spirit trudging a mile through the mud and grass back to the car in by now torrential rain. Fortuitously, having been placed in the first row of the furthest car park, right on the road, we joined the top of the queues of cars jamming the site in all directions, and were straight out. Everyone was turning left, so we turned right and found the next Motorway interchange along via empty roads. Twenty minutes later we stopped at the motorway services to change our wet trousers in the car. Goodness knows what the family who arrived halfway through and parked right next to us thought we were doing.