Everyone holds an ever-changing roster of songs continually rising or slipping in position on that nebulous list known as Favorite Songs of All Time. Lord knows my list of favorites changes several times within the day, but it would be far more time-consuming and specific for me to assemble a concrete list of favorite moments in music. I’m describing those fleeting instances when melody, rhythm, instrumentation and lyricism meet in such a sublime fashion that they elevate a good song to great, or a great song to almost holy. One of these moments, at least for me, occurs in Leonard Cohen’s “Tower of Song.” If you know the song, you might be able to guess which part, even though the song has no shortage of choice lyrical nuggets. The moment occurs when Cohen drops his voice a full octave to intone, “I was born with the gift of a golden voice” in a baritone so utterly refined that I swear I get light-headed. The newly released DVD, Leonard Cohen: Live in London, released with an accompanying album, features a performance of this song that in and of itself justifies the purchase. More importantly to me, and I fear giving too much away, but when Cohen arrives at that line, the audience joyfully flares up in appreciation. Turns out I’m not alone.
One need not be a cynic to grimace at the idea of watching a 74-year-old musician, even one as esteemed for the wisdom of his words as Cohen, labor through a set of his classic material. Considering these shoddy expectations, Leonard Cohen: Live in London need not be exceptional to succeed, but one suspects that even someone with high expectations would at the very least admire the good humor and warmth that Cohen constantly displays over the concert’s two and a half hour runtime. Cohen’s single-malt brand of talk singing is tough to beat and it feels genuine when he refers to the audience as “my friends.” It even sounds elegant when he’s introducing the members of his band for the fifth time. Of course, it does get a little redundant (especially during the solo-fest of “I Tried to Leave You”), but the fact that this highly respected musician, who could really have his pick of instrumentalists for hire, takes the time to acknowledge his band in such a personal way is touching. What’s more, the man is clearly having a ball, as is further evidenced by his surprising choice to gaily skip off the stage near the show’s end.
Up to this moment, Cohen commands the stage effortlessly, alternating seamlessly between graceful waltzes, loungier numbers, and brief spoken word interludes. It’s a testament to both Cohen’s timeless relevance and his poise that he can still pull off a song as mercurially sleazy as “I’m Your Man” at 74 without it being the least bit creepy. Furthermore, this DVD confirms for me that “If It Be Your Will” is a song that is impossible to ruin. I was pretty sure that no one was going to pull off a version of that song as definitive as Antony Hegart’s performance in Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man, but… well, it’s still definitive, but the version by the Webb sisters on Live in London comes pretty damn close.
With the exception of the always unfortunate pairing of saxophone and electric piano on “There Ain’t No Cure For Love,” there’s very little on Live in London that is less than a pleasure to listen to. The real treat though, for those like myself who’ve never had the opportunity to see Leonard Cohen live, is finding out how crucial to Cohen’s music his appearance is. Much in the same way Tom Waits looks like Tom Waits’ music, so too does Leonard Cohen personify all of the class and wit of his work.