Last weekend I found myself explaining – or attempting to explain – to a few different taxi drivers just who Leonard Cohen was, and why I was going all the way to Adelaide for Australia Day to see him play. My flippant answer would normally be, “Oh, he’s like the Canadian Bob Dylan.” With the constant caveat, “But better. So much better.” That answer will never feel even close to adequate now.
I must mention that this blog post will be much more about whistles than milkshakes – although one very excellent and actual milkshake will feature later on. Flying to Adelaide early in the morning on a day when everything is shut didn’t exactly lend itself to culinary genius, and our attempt at a classy impromptu picnic was rudely dashed when the camembert we bought turned into fondue in the 35 degree heat. The music, however, made up for all of that, as I hope it will here.
This particular Day on the Green brought together an acoustic Augie March (patron saints of this blog), Paul Kelly (playing with his nephew, Dan) and of course, Leonard Cohen. All 73 years of him. Ellen and I traveled from Adelaide by bus to Leconsfield Wine in McLaren Vale, accompanied by, well, a busload of old ladies and gentlemen, keen for a civilised day on the green.
Hey, take a photo of that farmer! I don’t think it’s a farmer, Ellen. I think he’s just leaning against something. No, he’s farming wine! Photo!
Augie March opened the evening with a mix of new tracks and old, accompanied by gadabout guitarist Dan Kelly. Some songs were asking for such a gentle touch – Farmer’s Son sounded much better stripped back than it does full bodied on the latest album. The Slant, it seems, is meant to be performed this way. Cold Acre and Pennywhistle were lovely as always. Crowd favourites One Crowded Hour and There is No Such Place shone acoustically, giving space to Glenn’s voice and words, and depth to the melodies.
(L-R) Keirnan, Ed, and Dave of Augie March. Tara and Ellen of Way Too Excited Right Now.
The highlight was, without a doubt, Train. Normally a rollicking and furious number, it was slowed down and smoothed out, sliding along in a tumble of steel string guitar and harmonica. The vocal melody became something else – a different key, heavy on the minor. What was once an angry and fervent cry because plaintive and mournful: “Thoughtless godless men find god in them at the age of 25, but in a year death gains favour and they think themselves the more alive.” I’m struggling not to throw in some hyperbolic statements about voices soaring and hearts breaking, but I think if I did it’d be close to the mark. A top performance!
We sadly missed most of Paul Kelly’s set, as we were eating an ice cream, drinking a milkshake, and meeting 3/5ths of Augie March. We got back in time to hear From Little Things as he played it with Dan Kelly, however, which was lovely.
Your bloggers with some iced confections
And then there was Leonard. There are some bands I need to time travel to really see. David Bowie. The Triffids. I am quietly convinced middle age never really happened to The Smiths, and that Morrissey and Marr are eternally 25. Leonard Cohen though – he was meant to be 73. I feel as though I could have happily waited 40 years for that concert – as many people in attendance had.
The couple in front of us. Later, they were making out like it was 1969 again.
The first track was Dance Me to the End of Love. I recall Leonard walking out in his little suit, complete with waistcoat and hat. I remember watching him on his knees as he sang to his guitarist, and thinking, “It’s really him.” The couple in front of us spent the whole song with the foreheads pressed together; staring at each other, gripping each other’s hands. The guy next to us sat crossed legged, on his own, blissed out as Leonard sang, “Dance me through the panic, til I’m gathered safely in.”
The sound was wonderful, the band and back up singers superb. I could describe each track in detail – I could give you a shopping list of instruments, lighting styles, back up singers, collaborators and friends. But I couldn't possibly describe how it felt, when after each song the crowd rose to their feet in a wave to thank him, before receding quietly for the next song. What struck me, struck deep at me, was his humility. His thankfulness. His quiet happiness. The look on his face as he watched two of his back up singers perform a song on their own. That split second look when the cameras were on him but the lights weren’t – gratefulness. Awe. Joy.
“I studied the deep philosophies,” he said at one point between songs. “And the religions. But cheerfulness kept breaking through.”
Suzanne. Who By Fire. The Partisan. Chelsea Hotel. Tower of Song. Everybody Knows. Famous Blue Raincoat. Hallelujah. Never have I felt so deeply anyone’s conviction as when Leonard Cohen sang that night, “and even though it all went wrong, I’ll stand before the lord of song, with nothing on my tongue but hallelujah,” to a crowd that was crying as much as singing along.
He played for nearly three hours, and left the stage on I Tried to Leave You. As we wandered, shaken, over the grass towards cars and buses a woman caught my eye. She looked seventy if she looked a day. She stared at me. I looked back. We neither said a word until I said, “I know,” and she said, “That was extraordinary.” She reached out, gripped my hand with hers. “I’m so glad. You’re so young, I’m so glad.”
Setlist: Leonard Cohen, A Day on the Green,
Leconsfield Wine 26/1/09
Dance Me to the End of Love
Ain't No Cure for Love
Bird on a Wire
In My Secret Life
Who By Fire
Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye
Tower of Song
The Gypsy's Wife
I'm Your Man
A Thousand Kisses Deep
Take This Waltz
So Long Marianne
First We Take Manhattan
Famous Blue Raincoat
If It Be Your Will (with the Webb Sisters)
I Tried to Leave You
To Augie March:
The Devil in Me – live for Triple J
To Paul Kelly:
Meet Me in the Middle of the Air – Foggy Highway
To Leonard Cohen:
Chelsea Hotel No 2
If it Be Your Will