Monday, March 20, 2017

Leonard Cohen: “Upon A Smokey Evening” (2017) CD Review

There have been several unofficial Leonard Cohen releases lately, all of them based on radio broadcasts of concerts (as well as a few interviews). The newest, Upon A Smokey Evening, is a two-disc set containing most of the concert that Leonard Cohen performed in Germany on December 3, 1979. It’s missing the first song of the show, as well as a couple of songs from the end of the performance. I’m not sure why the full show isn’t included, as each disc is approximately only fifty-six minutes, and so the three missing songs could easily fit. This concert was part of the Smokey Life tour, which supported Leonard Cohen’s 1979 release, Recent Songs, and many of the musicians from that album performed on the tour. The band includes Roscoe Beck on bass, Mitch Watkins on guitar, Bill Ginn on keys, Paul Ostermayer on saxophone and flute, Steve Meador on drums, Raffi Hakopian on violin, John Bilezikjian on oud, Jennifer Warnes on backing vocals and Sharon Robinson on backing vocals. By the way, this tour did yield an official live release titled Field Commander Cohen, which came out in 2001.

The first disc contains the first set, as well as the first few songs of the second set. As I mentioned, the first song is actually missing. And that’s a shame, as it’s an early instrumental rendition of “Heart With No Companion,” one of my favorite Leonard Cohen songs. The studio version of this song would not be released for another five years, on Various Positions, my personal favorite Leonard Cohen record. I hope one of the early versions of this songs will find its way onto a future release. Anyway, this release opens with “Bird On The Wire.” The sound isn’t perfect on this CD; there is a hiss throughout, making me wish I could press the old Dolby Noise Reduction button. But the music, of course, is great. In this version of “Bird On The Wire,” Leonard Cohen sings, “Like a monk bending over the book.”

He delivers a brief spoken introduction as he starts “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye”: “This is a song from an old brown hotel room.” This is an interesting rendition, as the keyboard is often the prominent instrument. The violin is beautiful. And then “Who By Fire” begins with a beautiful instrumental section. This is an unusual version of “Who By Fire,” with odd electronic sounds at moments. “Passing Through” begins slowly and sweetly with harmonica, and then some gorgeous vocals. It then picks up in pace, taking on a country feel. They slow it down it again at the end.

The first song of the night from Recent Songs is “The Window,” which begins with some pretty work on violin. This is a really nice rendition. (I just wish the folks behind this release could have eliminated the hiss.) And then I love the extended instrumental beginning to “Lover Lover Lover.” Though the song feels a bit disjointed in those moments when the electric guitar comes in, trying to take it in more of a country direction. Leonard Cohen concludes the first set with an excellent rendition of “So Long, Marianne,” his vocals sounding so damn good. Leonard sings, “Did I ever say that I was brave?” rather than “I never said that I was brave.” This is one of the highlights of the first disc.

The first disc contains the beginning of the second set. He introduces “The Stranger Song” by saying: “This is a very curious and important moment for the band and myself. It’s our last night in Germany, and we are here in some kind of very center of a series of Chinese boxes in Germany, the strongest nation of the west.” He follows that with “Chelsea Hotel No. 2,” for which he also gives an introduction. “They say the era is over. They say these are now the times of the conservative, the stable, the order. Perhaps that’s true. She certainly stood for something that was beyond order, and beyond chaos. Beyond the radical, and beyond the conservative, which is what every great singer embodies. Something that is not an argument and not a philosophy.” And he mentions Janis Joplin by name. The first disc then concludes with “A Singer Must Die,” which is another highlight. The disc ends abruptly before the audience can applaud.

The second disc begins with “The Partisan.” Interestingly, particularly as this concert took place in Germany, Leonard sings, “Then the Germans came” rather than “Then the soldiers came.” He follows that with a version of “Famous Blue Raincoat” in which the keyboard is prominent. I don’t think I’ve heard another version quite like this one. He gives an unusual delivery of “She sends her regards.” And then I like the saxophone that follows that line. After a pretty good version of “There Is A War,” Leonard Cohen plays a couple more beautiful tracks from Recent Songs – “The Gypsy’s Wife” and “The Guests.” I always love the female backing vocals on “The Guests.” He follows those with a rendition of “Suzanne,” and judging by the amount of applause, that might be the final song of the second set. I’m not sure.

“Memories” is a song I never got to see Leonard Cohen perform, much to my dismay. His introduction to it here is hilarious: “The next song is one of my least significant songs. In it, I have placed, as though it were data in a tiny time capsule which is fired at a distant star and actually dissolves in the colder reaches of space far before its ultimate destination. In this tiny song I have placed all the irrelevant material concerning my extremely dismal adolescence.” I love the humor of this song. “I walked up to the tallest and the blondest girl/I said, look, you don’t know me now, but very soon you will/So won’t you let me see/Won’t you let me see/Won’t you let me see your naked body?” This song is so much fun, and I dig the saxophone. The applause at the end makes it almost certain that the next song, “One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong,” is an encore. That’s followed by a seriously fun country rendition of “Tonight Will Be Fine,” another of the highlights. This song makes me ridiculously happy.

We are then missing “Sisters Of Mercy” for some reason, and the disc concludes with “I Tried To Leave You,” with each member of the band getting a chance to shine. In this rendition, Leonard Cohen sings, “The years go by, don’t they/You lose your precious pride, don’t you.” The final song of the concert, an encore performance of “Bird On The Wire,” is cut.

CD Track List

Disc 1
  1. Bird On The Wire
  2. Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye
  3. Who By Fire
  4. Passing Through
  5. The Window
  6. Lover Lover Lover
  7. So Long, Marianne
  8. The Stranger Song
  9. Chelsea Hotel No. 2
  10. A Singer Must Die
Disc 2
  1. The Partisan
  2. Famous Blue Raincoat
  3. There Is A War
  4. The Gypsy’s Wife
  5. The Guests
  6. Suzanne
  7. Memories
  8. One Of Us Cannot Be Wrong
  9. Tonight Will Be Fine
  10. I Tried To Leave You
Upon A Smokey Evening was released on March 10, 2017 through Golden Rain.

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