O2 Arena, London
17th July 2008
BEFORE THE CONCERT
The venue is terrifyingly large, a disastrous memoir to Tony Blair’s hubris (a taxi driver’s erudite words, not mine). Ticketmaster as well as exacting 10% on the tickets, sent us an e-mail to say the only parking available had to be pre-booked at £20 for the day in Car Park One. We fell for it. Bastards. In fact you can park at the closer Car Park Four, buy one £7 cinema ticket and get free parking. When we went into Greenwich town centre, at least three locals explained that one. Also that Ticketmasters car park was “Car Park One”. Car Park Four was closer to the venue. A cunning bit of nomenclature.
The O2 Arena is full of chain restaurants. Very pleasant Japanese snack on arrival at Wasabi. Foul Thai “Event Special” dinner later. Made worse by going to the gents in “Thai Silk” afterwards to find a 6 foot 6 inch Afro-Caribbean gent standing right at your side with a hand towel while you pee, asking obsequiously how you like Leonard Cohen etc. At least he wasn’t asking how you liked George Michael or Elton John, which would have been more disconcerting, I suppose. People put one pound coins in his saucer. I didn’t. I’d been too put off to pee more than a dribble and had to go straight to the public one outside. I was terribly worried that I might have absorbed the racist myths about size of my youth to the degree where I was doubly put off by having him staring down at me. Also, I don’t pay £30 for a crap meal for two and then pay to pee out the green tea. That’s a French import. Preserve the British right to a free pee.
The O2 has examples of the old Greater London Council’s legacy of mealy-mouthed and insincere environmentalism. When you go in, you have to hand over the tops of any bottled water you’re carrying. They explain that it’s Health and Safety. In the event of an evacuation, closed bottles are dangerous underfoot, while open ones just crush. So, I asked, it’s nothing to do with small bottles of water costing 25p in the supermarket, 50p at the nearby station, but £1.35 inside the O2 Arena, then? They looked hurt. I think the operators believe the spin of their masters. Then they announce that only drinks bought at the venue can be taken through the doors. OK, ban cameras, recorders etc, but bottled water? Fortunately the security staff are too embarrassed to stop people.
Huge arena. We had good seats in Level 1. I wouldn’t have fancied Level 4 high in the sky. I was dubious about the prospects for sound in an overblown extruded plastic circus tent. Wrongly. Sound was impeccable throughout the evening.
Let’s get the assessment over quickly. We spent the three hour journey home comparing previous concerts we’ve seen. Leonard Cohen rates in the top two or three ever, with Paul Simon and Marvin Gaye. I was worried that he looked frail and sounded ancient at the time of Dear Heather. The man is totally invigorated and sounds no older than on the 1992/1993 live CDs. I hate to spoil his nightly joke, but it brings the house down and I’ve read it in two reviews already … “The last time I played London was fifteen years ago … when I was just a sixty-year old kid with a crazy dream …” I’ve never seen an audience so in tune with every nuance in an act. Lines get enormous reactions … “I wasn’t born like this, I had no choice, I was born with the gift of a golden voice …” gets uproars of laughter and applause. His between songs patter is great all evening. Often he opens a song by reciting a poetic key verse first … with “A Thousand Kisses Deep” he does the whole song as a recitation with subtle Hammond organ in the background.
Audience profile? Next to us on one side late twenty something women who knew every word of every song. In front of them forty somethings. In front of us three guys my age, behind us seventy somethings. Lots and lots of people under forty. Like Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel solo shows, gender is close to fifty / fifty. If anything slightly more female. Contrast the dour 80% or more male audience the last time I saw Dylan. Too much guitar solo from Bob, I think.
Technically, Cohen’s close miked and louder in relation to his band than any singer I’ve seen, which is absolutely right. His articulation is even clearer than Paul Simon. You don’t miss a single word all evening. The three female singers are the counterpoint. Sharon Robinson, his collaborator on Ten New Songs, is a powerful singer, of stunning ability, able to go from delicacy to soul vocals instantly. Boogie Street was her featured lead. Next to her are the younger Webb Sisters, who are British, with pure country / Celtic voices. They get their spots too, with The Webb Sisters doing an achingly beautiful If It Be Your Will as the last encore but one, accompanying themselves on harp and guitar with just bass guitar behind. The Everly Brothers always said that being siblings gave their vocal interplay its special quality. The Webb Sisters have that same sibling magic.
A couple of reviews picked out how often he credited his band. He did at least three full round up name checks and many more individual bits of praise after solos. But what a band. They were quiet too which worked. Neil Larson on Hammond B3 organ is second only to Garth Hudson in the organ players I’ve seen, but as Garth Hudson rarely plays Hammond, I can safely say Larson’s the best Hammond player. Musical director Roscoe Beck plays bass guitar and stand-up bass and gets sounds out of both that are new. A brilliant bass player. Bob Metzger on guitar and pedal steel coaxes a Telecaster to great effect, and was with Cohen in 1988 and 1993. Javier Mas occupies a plush red armchair (before the show we’d assumed it was for Leonard Cohen) and plays a lot of stringed acoustic instruments, 12 string guitar, bandurria, laud, archilaud … no, I’d never heard of three of those either. They’re wooden with nylon strings and this man is manifestly the world expert on them. And by the way, Leonard didn’t sit all evening, though he did kneel to sing a few times. Rafael Gaylon is the drummer, supportive and subtle all evening. I see ‘his big break came in playing with Robbie Robertson in Italy.’ Dino Soldo plays second keyboard, percussion, mouth harp (brilliantly), saxophone and mostly ‘The Instrument of Wind’ which looks like a larger squarer soprano sax with an electric lead attached. It sounds wonderful.So a Canadian, American, Spanish, Mexican and British band. It figures. The appeal is international too.
The set list included just about everything most people wanted from the first album right through. Hallelujah was incredibly powerful, so much so that you couldn’t believe his age. All the arrangements were new, surprising but great on So Long, Marianne for example. The “big” songs like The Future, Democracy, Closing Time, First We Take Manhatten, I’m Your Man, Everybody Knows were even bigger. The quiet pieces are masterpieces of arrangement. Tower of Song opened the second half with computer keyboards for drums and bass (the only time in the evening) and Leonard alone picking out a keyboard solo. It got huge applause, ‘You’re easily satisfied,’ he said. As we were walking out, I said ‘He played everything I wanted to hear except …’ and my wife finished for me, ‘… Alexandra Leaving.’ The people next to us joined in, ‘We were just saying that!” ‘So were we’ added another couple. So that’s a tip for next time. But it’s like a Persian carpet. They would always sew in one tiny imperfection so as not to challenge God.
At the end, he literally skipped off stage. He started at eight, took a twenty minute break and finished at ten past eleven. That’s two hours fifty minutes. Twice as much as younger stars often get away with. All his own songs. Not a single drop in quality or attention all night.
So how good was it? After a tedious three hour drive from Greenwich, I had to check my e-mail when I got in so as to tell people not to call me early in the morning. There was an e-mail from TicketMaster announcing that Leonard would be playing Bournemouth in November and that tickets would be on sale at 9 a.m. I set the alarm for 8.45 and got some.