Music News

Leonard Cohen and the Most Overlooked Live Album of 2009

Leonard Cohen Live at the Isle of Wight 1970 is not just some re-mastered re-issue. It ain't no run-of-the-mill recording. This is the first time that Cohen's entire performance at the historic festival has been released. Why is this exciting and noteworthy, you may ask? For several reasons.

Firstly, Leonard Cohen is widely considered one of the most brilliant lyricists and songwriters of our time. He is well known for his social consciousness, poetic verses, and dark, stirring voice. His contemporaries include Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, and Bob Dylan.

Next, the Isle of Wight Festival of 1970 was a monumental event in music history, yet remains largely unknown to today's generation. At that event, more than 600,000 people filled the tiny island off of the southern coast of England, which had fewer than 100,000 residents. The festival is considered one of the largest gatherings in history. (Woodstock had about 400,000 people in attendance.)

At the Isle of Wight festival, the audience rebelled in ways that were unprecedented. The placement of the show was not conducive to the large crowd in attendance. The stage was located at the bottom of Devastation Hill. The problem was that while there were gates up around the perimeter of the area designated for the show, many people just sat atop the hill, just outside of the gates to watch the show for free. Indeed, many of them also attempted to tear the gates down. Fans claimed to be angry about the ticket price, only £3 for the four-day festival.

Musicians were routinely booed off the stage. Joni Mitchell, nearly in tears, had to beg the audience to calm down so she could play her set. Kris Kristofferson and his band refused to get off the stage unless they were forced to at gunpoint. When the crowd wouldn't settle down, he responded, "I think they're gonna shoot us." Nothing though, could top Jimi Hendrix's performance, when the crowd set the stage on fire.

That is, perhaps, except for Leonard Cohen. As soon as he took the stage, all 600,000 people seemed to simultaneously, instantaneously fall silent in his ostensibly supernatural presence. While others were visibly nervous upon taking the stage, Cohen was unapologetic. He was awoken in the middle of the night to perform because his time slot had been pushed far back because of the crowd's revolt.

What is also remarkable, is that while recording technology in 1970 was not what it is today, the quality is phenomenal, with resounding clarity. And while the hardest thing to capture in a live recording is the energy of the musician, and the relationship between the performer and the audience, somehow it's as though the feeling was bottled and released to you as you watch it. One cannot help but be transfixed by Cohen. His subtlety, his movements, his slight swagger, his tired eyes, his long face, the depth of his voice, and even his stillness cannot help but halt you in awe and wonder.

And though this mesmerizing recording was released last fall, it went fairly unnoticed. Perhaps some of this was related to the timing of its release. Leonard Cohen Live in London premiered on PBS around the same time. While everyone wrote extensively about the indie pop bands that the in crowd is listening to at the moment, few made remarks about this gem. Give yourself a present and listen to it. Bonus: The recording comes with the DVD documentary made by Oscar winner Murray Lerner about the event, featuring most of the live footage of Cohen's performance. Can't lose.

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Sarah Ventre