Sound: Long before Hallelujah became a cult hit thanks to artists like Jeff Buckley and Rufus Wainwright rediscovering it, singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen had already left his legendary mark upon it. And even before he originally wrote and recorded that now-famous tune back in the early 1980's, Cohen was already a full-fledged icon of the 1960's. As a troubadour of the hippie era, Leonard connected with audiences thanks to a keen sense of lyrical construction, wit, and pleasing (usually mellow) melodies. Fans can witness a slice from that time with the new release Leonard Cohen: Live at the Isle of Wight 1970, which chronicles the historic concert event that included artists like Jimi Hendrix, The Who, and The Doors. With the new CD/DVD, you'll hear just what exactly made Cohen stand apart from the contrasting rockers and why his act was the one that soothed the restless crowd of 600,000.
Cohen's songwriting circa 1970 had a distinct separation from the output of his later years, and in many ways you'll notice similarities between him and Bob Dylan. Both, while extremely competent at finding the perfect melody, did put a huge emphasis on the themes and the lyrical message. Cohen's performance at the Isle of Wight does differ greatly with his current concert style (which is a bit more stylized and sleek), and the 1970 show revolves around the folk genre. If you like Hallelujah, just be aware that this performance is a far cry from his later years.
Both the CD and DVD take their tracklist from the Isle of Wight performance, with the CD including poetry selections such as They Locked Up A Man/A Person Who Eats Meat. Bird On The Wire, Famous Blue Raincoat, Tonight Will Be Fine, Seems So Long, Nancy, and Suzanne are among the songs featured on both disks, but the CD does include a larger quantity of material. What sets the DVD apart primarily is the fact that you'll hear anecdotes from singers such as Kris Kristofferson, Joan Baez, and Judy Collins about Cohen's own demeanor and how the massive audience responded favorably to his set even after sitting days upon days in the cold mud. It's true that by today's standards Cohen's performance in 1970 was a bit dry, but it's hard to not connect on some level with his lyrical ideas. // 9
Lyrics: In terms of lyrical construction, it doesn't get much better than Cohen. In contrast to his peers Dylan and Baez, there was more of a tendency to deal with emotions and relationships, but Cohen still has an amazing gift at storytelling. A perfect example comes in One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong with such lines as, I lit a thin green candle, to make you jealous of me; But the room just filled up with mosquitoes; They heard that my body was free; Then I took the dust of a long sleepless night and I put it in your little shoe. It's always hard to tell which way the songs will turn, and it's not usually what you might guess. Amazingly enough, the encore song has nowhere near the uplifting message/theme you'd get today's closing songs, and instead it deals with a woman who committed suicide. In Seems So Long Ago, Nancy Cohen sings, It seems so long ago, Nancy was alone; A forty five beside her head, an open telephone; We told her she was beautiful, we told her she was free. Throughout the show songs revolving around pain and pleasure do balance out, and the overall content makes for a mesmerizing performance when you take stock of all the poetic qualities. // 10
Overall Impression: After watching Cohen recently for his 2009 concert tour, it's pretty amazing to see his transformation as a performer. He actually moves around more onstage now than he did in the Isle of Wight show, and anyone who isn't familiar with Cohen's music might not be quite sure what to think of the folk-driven content seen in 1970. Even so, the 19 tracks (which include poems, intros, and the like) are a worthwhile addition to your collection. The performances are stripped down to acoustic and vocals for the most part, but there are added harmonies, organ, and electric guitar at times. In the end, Cohen is an oddly intriguing individual who somehow manages to lure you in within the first few minutes with comments like, I want everyone to light a match so you'll spark like fireflies. // 9