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LEONARD COHEN
Songs From the Road
Columbia / Legacy / Sony BMG
Format: CD+DVD / Blu-Ray / 2LP
Release Date: September 14, 2010
By Doug Simpson May 3, 2011

On the heels of Skyscraper’s relaunch, we’ll be reviewing a number of records from mid-to-late 2010 that we missed out on covering during our semi-hiatus. Sort of a “what we missed” series of reviews, emphasizing both some of the best releases of 2010 and some of the year’s most interesting but overlooked records. This is one of those.

Of all the singer-songwriters who came of age during the late 1960s and attained prominence in the following decade – James Taylor, Carole King, Paul Simon, et al – Leonard Cohen remains the most fascinating and commanding this side of Bob Dylan. Like Dylan, Cohen has sustained a multi-decade career filled with creative and spiritual exploration, which has sometimes mystified fans but nevertheless has still proven to be timeless.

The immutability of Cohen’s poetic vision, music, and personality are at the forefront of the 2010 concert album and film package Songs From the Road, which includes 12 tunes recorded at various venues during Cohen’s 2008-9 world tour, including stops in Israel, England, California, and Canada.  Songs From the Road comes on the heels of the CD+DVD release Live from London (Columbia, 2009), which focused on a single performance: the July 17, 2008, show at London’s O2 Arena. Songs from the Road was also brought out the same year as the reissue of Cohen’s 1972 concert documentary, Bird on a Wire. While all three releases highlight the singer’s onstage presence, each portrays a different aspect. Bird on a Wire follows Cohen off stage and presents him up close and intimate, away from the spotlight. Live from London takes the opposite approach, zeroing-in on a particular stage show, start to finish, and capturing the feel and flow of a distinct appearance as fans experienced it.

Songs From the Road is similar but utilizes specific songs from a variety of gigs selected by Cohen producer Ed Sanders, all of which Cohen acknowledged were very special renditions. It seems magic happened nearly every evening, since pieces are culled from 11 nights. What each demonstrates is Cohen’s ability to communicate on a personal level with every soul in the audience, no matter how large the crowd. Fans can be unforgiving, and too often music stars believe the multitudes are there for them personally and not the show. Watching Songs From the Road, it’s clear everyone is listening intently, as they firmly inhabit each moment along with Cohen while he’s humbled and considerate of his admirers.

The music is a treat for Cohen aficionados since the dozen numbers cover well-worn favorites “Bird on the Wire,” “Chelsea Hotel,” and “Suzanne,” in addition to also lesser-known nuggets “Heart with No Companion,” from Various Positions (Columbia, 1985), and “That Don’t Make It Junk,” off of Ten New Songs (Columbia, 2001).  There are modified versions as well. Cohen rearranges the verse sequence on “Suzanne” and inserts a new one in “Bird on the Wire.” Throughout, Cohen’s finely weathered voice is complemented by one of his best backing bands ever. The nine musicians – including famed keyboardist Neil Larsen and longtime collaborator/harmony vocalist Sharon Robinson – impart a warm, luminous tone shifting from light pop/jazz to country to somber folk. The uplifted arrangements – which include keyboards, drums, and pedal steel guitar, as well as harmonica, harp, and assorted Spanish stringed instruments – provide optimism to even the most dejected lyrics. An excellent example comes during a country-stippled rendering of “Heart with No Companion,” which has a slightly humorous interpretation accentuated (on the DVD version, anyway) when the backing singers do an impromptu dance during an instrumental break.

Anyone who knows Cohen has probably heard his songs countless times, but during Songs From the Road Cohen brings freshness to even the oldest material, including “Chelsea Hotel” and “Suzanne,” which have developed into narratives of nearly-mythic reflection that Cohen now dispenses with deep-rooted significance. The renewed impact of Cohen’s perceptive music is not lost on concert goers. During “Lover, Lover, Lover,” which opens up this collection, fans hold up green light sticks as they sway in time to Cohen’s melodically lilting plea for a new identity and an old romance. During “Chelsea Hotel,” where Cohen turns a one-night stand into something akin to a commemoration, the audience rises to their feet.

The 71-minutes worth of concert footage is superbly shot. It’s apparent the film crew took time to get the finest close-ups on every musician, the best angles on Cohen, and superlative color balance despite varied lighting at each venue. The visuals emphasize Cohen’s lyrics in ways that a sound recording cannot match: when Cohen drops to his knees at the beginning of “Waiting For the Miracle” in a half-prayer, half-entreaty, or how he uses subtle flicks of his finger on several songs to accent a word or syllable. There is a 21-minute DVD bonus, the mini-documentary Backstage Sketch, a slice of behind-the-scenes life which centers exclusively on band members and tour staff. One odd choice is the DVD’s optional subtitles, which are only accessible during Backstage Sketch. Anyone who wants to switch on the subtitles to read Cohen’s lyrics as he sings is out of luck. More useful is the DVD booklet, with producer Ed Sanders’ notes explaining how he chose each performance, as well as Leon Wieseltier’s essay concerning life on the road.

Visit: Leonard Cohen | Legacy
Purchase: Insound | eMusic