Leonard Cohen, Wembley Arena (9 Sept 2012)

In her first piece for The Substantive, Simone Webb reviews the return to the London stage of Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen.

Every time I set out to write this review, it sounded increasingly pretentious, as a result of my elaborate attempts both to express my feelings at last night’s Leonard Cohen concert and to mimic the style of other reviews. (You know – “pithy opening line, personal anecdote related to the artist performing, background information, etc, etc, quips, pithy closing line”. The Telegraph even managed to end their review with a truly appalling pun: “this remains a country for old Len”.) I’m not sure it’s much use my trying to do both those things at once, so I’ll stick with trying to express my feelings, and leave the puns and frills to other reviewers.

I can truly say, with no hint of exaggeration, that seeing Leonard Cohen perform at the Wembley Arena was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life so far.

I wasn’t always a fan of Cohen’s work; I found it dreary until, over the past couple of years, as I listened to his music more closely I slowly collected a group of favourites (all fairly obvious; loving Take This Waltz and I’m Your Man is not original, but I loved them nonetheless.) And any dreariness with which his songs could have been charged was swept away last night. A perfect balance was struck between songs from his new album, Old Ideas, and his past catalogue, and – on my part – songs I was familiar with and songs I was hearing for the first time. My personal high point was near the end of the second half of the night when he sang I’m Your Man, Hallelujah, and Take This Waltz in succession; the intimacy he succeeded in creating in such a large (and indeed bleak) space, as well as the perfect quality of the sound engineering, combined to make an experience which bordered on the spiritual.

Mention needs to be made of the band, particularly the vocalists – the Webb sisters from Kent, and Sharon Robinson (collaborator with Cohen on songs such as Everybody Knows). They were all difficult to fault, and it was touching to see Cohen pay respect to them throughout the show, removing his fedora and standing stock still during their solo moments. His air of humility and respect was apparent the whole night, in fact; he bowed to the audience at the end of each half, radiating stillness and sincerity. His words at the end of the show would probably have sounded trite and sentimental to me coming from nearly anyone else, but he delivered them in such a way that they seemed to have genuine meaning: “May you be surrounded by friends and family all the days of your lives, and if that is not your lot, may blessings find you in your solitude”.

I’m not sure I did escape sounding pretentious after all. It’s not often that I experience something which I find difficult to criticise or distance myself from. I can only recommend that anyone who gets a chance to see Leonard Cohen perform live do so, and furthermore that they listen to his new album; it has some wonderful songs on it (particular favourites of mine were Going Home and Amen). I’ll conclude with my favourite lines from any Cohen song:

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.

Simone Webb

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