With Leonard Cohen’s star in the ascendant after the Came So Far For Beauty concerts, the Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man documentary, the remastered early albums, his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, more than a year of well-received and artistically successful shows, and the Live in London CD and DVD, it’s no surprise that Cohen’s performance at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival has been dusted off. It makes an awful lot of commercial sense, and the story surrounding the show is certainly compelling: Cohen took the stage in the dead of night in front of half a million people, and, to quote the press materials, “tamed the crowd”. So yes, it’s no surprise to see this CD/DVD package hitting the stores. But it’s also entirely justified by the fact that it’s a great concert and it’s well presented.
As a document, Live at the Isle of Wight is more representative of Cohen’s performances during this period than 1973’s Live Songs, which focused on material from Cohen’s second album, Songs From a Room, and songs otherwise unavailable on his records. Particularly since the release of Live in London earlier this year, which showed the songwriter triumphant late in his career, it’s nice to finally have a complete concert of Cohen in his early prime. Live Songs is still a fantastic record and gives some sense of what Cohen was doing onstage with his current material. It achieves a mood and certainly has a sense of drama, but it’s also cobbled together from shows over a three-year period. At last, we get the whole shebang: songs, poetry, and song introductions as spontaneous-sounding and entrancing the tenth time you hear them as they were the first.
Compared to the well-oiled machine that is the Leonard Cohen show in 2009, the Isle of Wight sound is loose and flexible, with Cohen joined by a group he dubbed the Army. The Army were an aggregate of Nashville pros, including Charlie Daniels and producer Bob Johnston, plus the female backup vocalists that have come to be identified with Cohen’s music. There is no drummer and no soloing, and everything is in the service of the songs. As a result, there’s a very casual, unrehearsed feel to the music which allows things to ebb and flow very organically. At the same time, despite the smallness of the band, the sound isn’t exactly thin or sparse; they hold back at times, focusing on providing color and texture, but this is a group that can certainly make a joyful noise, as we hear on “Sing Another Song, Boys”, “So Long, Marianne” or “Tonight Will Be Fine”.
The latter is one of the highlights of this package. The Isle of Wight version has been available for years on Live Songs, but hearing and seeing that performance in its original context is a treat. In its studio incarnation, it was a small jewel. Live, Cohen and the Army simultaneously slow the song down and make it more buoyant, adding fiddle, banjo, harmonica and a singalong element that’s absolutely missing from the studio version. The slower tempo allows Cohen to sing-scream, rather than speak-chant, his lyrics, and the song is further drawn out with the addition of a couple extra verses. It’s a joyous, infectious performance, proof enough for anyone who needs it that a Cohen song isn’t always a slow outpouring of doom and gloom.
Unlike the career-spanning set-list of Live in London, Cohen’s repertoire at the Isle of Wight was comprised of songs from his first two records, as well as a few that would turn up on 1971’s Songs of Love and Hate. (The performance of “Sing Another Song, Boys” on the latter is, in fact, from the Isle of Wight concert.) There’s always something fascinating about live performances from early in an artist’s career, before certain lesser songs—“Tonight Will Be Fine” would qualify, as would many others here - have disappeared from the set list. To me, the release of Isle of Wight reveals Songs From a Room as a less satisfactory record than I’d previously thought. It’s still the worst sounding album in Cohen’s catalogue, plodding along metronomically for 35 minutes, always painfully obvious that something is missing. That’s no reflection on the quality of the songs, which include one bona-fide standard in “Bird on the Wire”, another classic in “Story of Isaac”, and a whole bunch of minor gems. What’s missing, it’s now clear—and it should’ve been before Isle of Wight, but this record clinches it—are the female backup singers who grace all of Leonard Cohen’s other albums. Sure, they’re occasionally comically over-the-top; just listen to the studio versions of “Diamonds in the Mine” or “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye” or anything from Death of a Ladies’ Man. But they’re also a perfect complement to Cohen’s own less-than-versatile pipes, lending his music an ethereal quality that distinguishes it from that of his contemporaries. That quality is also what seems to have attracted such a range of interpreters to his songs.
Almost as revelatory as “Tonight Will Be Fine” in its Isle of Wight incarnation is “Lady Midnight”, which was one of the more curious inclusions on 1975’s The Best of Leonard Cohen. The studio take is a perfectly serviceable, bouncy, compact little song, but it lacks the beautiful power of his truly great work. The Isle of Wight version is a whole different animal: it’s slowed down just a bit, Cohen delivers a smooth, fluid vocal, and the moment the ladies come in at the end of the song, with a wonderfully drawn-out “You’ve won me, my lord,” leading into some spirited ad-libbing by Cohen, is one of the best demonstrations of what the background vocalists bring to his music. He sounds at ease, and at one, with his songs, in no small part due to the ladies’ elevating them. The six songs drawn from Songs From a Room have never sounded better than they do here.
It wasn’t my intention to harp on the distinctions between Live at the Isle of Wight and Songs From a Room, but that’s been the aspect of listening to Isle of Wight that’s most intrigued me. The rest of the songs are great, too. Cohen sings half of his debut album here, and hearing those songs stripped of any production flourishes isn’t any better or worse, just different. “The Stranger Song” is the lone solo performance here; on the DVD, it’s neat when the camera zooms out to reveal the band just sitting there, with Cohen singing and playing by himself. In a modern concert, this alone-ness would’ve been exaggerated by a dramatic single spotlight or something. Meanwhile, “Diamonds in the Mine” would lose a verse by the time it was recorded for Songs of Love and Hate, and “Sing Another Song, Boys”, which for a long time seemed out of place on that album, sounds great in this setting. It’s a shame that the video omits a good portion of the song, because the building intensity of the performance is totally lost.
My only real complaint regarding of the DVD is its incompleteness. It’s missing a handful of songs, others are cut short, and the order of the show is scrambled. There’s no explanation for this in the liner notes. It’s ultimately not a big deal, because what’s here is presented without an ounce of fat. And if the additional cultural context it provides isn’t necessary for enjoyment of the music, it certainly augments the audio nicely and offers some minor charms and revelations of its own. For instance, what sounds like a flute on “One of Us Cannot Be Wrong” turns out to be Cohen whistling into his cupped hands. And there are several shots from behind the musicians in which the Who’s equipment is still onstage, which is a small detail but a fun one.
As Leonard Cohen wraps up another year back in the limelight, it might seem reasonable to question the necessity of unearthing 40-year-old recordings when he’s very much alive and omnipresent. But one listen to Live at the Isle of Wight 1970—coupled with a screening of the DVD - and you won’t be likely to ask yourself that question again any time soon. This is vital music for Cohen fans old and new, a potent reminder that he didn’t just pop up out of nowhere a few years ago.