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Classic Cohen performance moves and engages

As August waned in 1970, the anti-Woodstock took place at the Isle of Wight music festival. The potential of the 60s was beginning to segue into the stagnation of the 70s, and the people were restless. What was meant to only have a 100,000 person turnout ended up being gate crashed by a crowd of over 600,000 very angry music lovers. The performers did their part to try to keep the crowd calm, but to little avail. During Jimi Hendrix’s set, the stage was somehow set aflame. Performances were frequently interrupted by political diatribes from radical patrons. All was frustration and chaos.

Finally, the time came for Leonard Cohen to perform. Unfortunately, the piano and organ he needed were unable to be produced. Not discouraged, he told the event organizers that he was going to take a nap, and that he should be woken up when they were found. When they finally were, it was 4 o’clock in the morning. Leonard Cohen was woken up, changed from his pajamas into a safari jacket and jeans, and hit the stage.

It is this performance that is captured on the fantastic “Leonard Cohen: Live at the Isle of Wight 1970” CD/DVD package. The crowd has already booed off Kris Kristofferson, and tensions are high. What is achieved in this performance is nothing less than complete connection with a crowd disenfranchised with the reality that has been presented to them. Leonard Cohen’s beautiful folk-based poetry perfectly reflects the tensions of the time.

As the show begins, Cohen relates an anecdote about his father taking him to the circus as a child, and seeing a man there tell everybody in the audience to light matches so that they might find each other. At this point, he tells the Isle of Wight to do the same. As the camera cuts to the crowd, we can see a few scattered flames. As the performance continues, though, their numbers increase. The true connection between audience and performer is achieved. This connection exists out of time, and somehow manages to carry over into the DVD recording.

For the most part, the camera stays on Cohen’s face. While there are several shots of the crowd, and scattered “Talking Heads” (which do provide some context, but disrupt the flow of the performance to an extent), the real attraction here is the raw live footage, little of which has been previously released. The sound quality is shockingly fantastic, and every word of poetry – and yes, every word he says in this is poetry-comes through clearly.

The music itself beautifully maintains the sound of his records at the time. The few changes actually serve to improve the original material sometimes, as in “Tonight Will Be Fine.” What once was a pleasant afterthought of a closer to “Songs From a Room” becomes a cathartic barnstormer of a song, with a Charlie Daniels violin solo that takes the song to emotional peaks previously unknown for Leonard Cohen.

With his recent comeback in the past year, this set is an essential purchase for new fans and seasoned veterans alike. It exists out of time more than most other recorded performances from the so-called “Woodstock Generation” and consequently and has the capacity to ensnare this singer-songwriter a new generation of followers. He’s earned it.

Mark Schiffer can be reached at mschiffe@student.umass.edu.

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