Leonard Cohen at Weybridge, 11 July 2009
We have been to many concerts over the years and seen many performers at venues across England and Wales, but Leonard Cohen at Mercedes Benz World Arena, Wetbridge (the town formerly known as Weybridge) was one of the best. There is nothing the British do better than an outdoor summer concert in the rain! This is our review of a very special occasion. Please note that all opinions and interpretations are our own - other people may have different impressions of the evening.
Before the concert
We bought our tickets at the Leonard Cohen Forum presale back in March. Envisaging a beautiful sunny July day and warm evening sunshine, we chose the outdoor arena at Mercedes Benz World (a former airfield and home to the Brooklands Racing Circuit) over an indoor venue in Liverpool. The media had been busily mis-interpreting the Met Office's summer forecast and had been promising England a scorching barbeque summer. Then, in early July, the jet stream slipped!
In the week leading up to the concert we anxiously followed the weather forecasts. A deep summer low was approaching but it's timing and path were unpredictable, allowing us to hope that we might at least have dry weather for part of the day - but by Friday July 10th it seemed pretty clear that Weybridge was going to be wet!
We woke to heavy rain in Weymouth and left home early. The rain followed us. We had heard reports of traffic problems for last year's concerts at this venue and wanted to be there when the car park opened. We also erred on the side of caution and pre-booked our parking tickets. We had a clear run (people who arrived later suffered extreme delays). We drove across the windswept airfield and were parked one row from the arena fence by 2.15pm. Belts of light showery rain blew in from the west.
We considered walking towards Marks and Spencer in a nearby retail park but decided not to risk getting wet as it was starting to rain again. Instead we got our raincoats and ventured out to mingle with some other early birds. That proved to be a wise decision as a short time later we were treated to Leonard's live sound check. We couldn't quite see the man himself - we were some way back from the stage, behind a wire fence - but we could see the video screens which displayed it all. The man himself was there.
We were treated to several songs including extracts from Dance Me To The End of Love, The Future, The Heart With No Companion, Lover Lover Lover (which was not actually played at the concert) and the Webb Sisters' beautiful version of If It Be your Will. Leonard Cohen could be heard giving directions and saying "good" when he was satisfied with a song. There weren't many people there at that point, and not everyone realised it was a live performance. Some people chattered through it, seemingly oblivious. There was just a line of us standing with noses pressed to the fence, heads covered and listening to every note, not quite able to believe our luck. We stood alongside some other Forum members and two car loads of fans from Dorset.
After the sound check we sheltered in the car for a while, eating a picnic and staying dry, but decided that as we were going to get soaked anyway, then we may just as well go inside. The entire venue was out-of-doors. There were already long queues for food and drinks so we decided against getting a coffee. Instead we found our seats, which were pretty central and close to the stage. A sponge-bearing steward rushed over and mopped up most of the excess water that had gathered in a large puddles on our chairs. Then we just put up our rainhoods and sat it out!
At 5.45pm Suzanne Vega came on stage; it was her 50th birthday and she was on good form. We were not familiar with Suzanne's music so had invested in a couple of her CDs to play en route. She played an excellent set and we thoroughly enjoyed her performance. We loved Caramel, Tom's Diner and Luka.
It was just a pity that she played to a rather empty arena. Many fans were delayed by heavy queues of traffic from the motorway and there were long queues for the food stalls and for the toilets inside the venue. The weather had begun to get worse too, with heavier showers and fewer dry interludes.
Leonard Cohen - Part 1
Suzanne left the stage at 6.30pm. At 7pm Leonard Cohen bounced onto the stage to start the concert with Dance Me to the End of Love. Again, due to the severe traffic problems, many people were still arriving. It must have been so frustrating to have allowed plenty of time for your journey only to find yourself in a 3 hour traffic jam just miles from your destination. Having said that, despite the traffic chaos and the appalling weather, there were very few empty seats by the interval.
The first half of the concert was good. Having seen previous concerts on this tour (first O2 Concert and Bournemouth), we were immediately struck by how much more relaxed the band, Sharon Robinson and the Webb Sisters seemed to be. Leonard was as dapper, as un-assuming and as energetic as ever.
Dino Soldo's saxophone playing was wonderful; he was quite uninhibited and threw himself into his music. The Webb sisters threw themselves into a cartwheel for the "white girls dancing" line from The Future. The crowd threw themselves into the spirit of things, clapping and cheering enthusiastically at every pause in the music.
The set list was a little changed from other concerts we have been to. We were delighted to hear Heart With No Companion for the first time and not sorry that That Don't Make It Junk had been dropped although Helen's favourite, the poetic That's No Way To Say Goodbye and Steve's favourite, The Gypsy Wife were also dropped; this last is introduced by a beautiful solo from Javier Mas on the Laud. We thought his fingers were simply too cold but now realise that it has not been played at the other 2009 European concerts either.
The queues for the hot refreshments and the toilets were so long in the brief interval that many people stayed put around the seating areas. The young man sitting next to us was starving and came back clutching an ice cream cone - the ice cream van was the only provisions merchant without a queue! Other people posed for photos or tried to sell spare tickets!
The interval gave us a chance to look at our fellow concert goers, out to enjoy a balmy summer's evening, setting up their barbeques, unpacking their picnics and sipping their Pimms. The stewards had filled their buckets with UV protection factor 50 and were mopping anyone looking a little burnt. Sunglasses, sun hats and the odd bikini were in evidence. Or that is how it should have been, but things were quite different (see the photos below). Raincoats were the order of the day - many were blue but that this may be coincidence rather than a tribute.
Leonard Cohen - Part 2
If the first half was good, the second half was amazing. In the interval a fan placed a long-stemmed white rose and a gift wrapped package (chocolates?) on the stage for Leonard, which he picked up and tenderly placed on the drum riser. Another fan handed him a long-stemmed red rose which he graciously accepted, stooping to collect it from the front of the stage.
By now it was dark and the heavens had opened with a vengence. The rain was torrential. The band came out wearing scarves and coats, as did Leonard Cohen himself. Leonard improvised the words of some songs and tried, we thought, to take Hallelujah as his own again after all the cover versions.
I'm Your Man elicited loud enthusiastic "Phwwaarrrs" from a pair of ladies waving an I'm your Woman banner, especially when he promised "to examine every precious inch of you" and "wear an old man's mask for you". The crowd's perennial favourite line, Leonard's gravelly "I was born like this, I had no choice, I was born with the gift of the golden voice" from Tower of Song was greeted with loud but respectful affection.
Leonard Cohen is much maligned for playing 'music to slit your wrists to'. Anyone who believes that needs to take time to listen to his songs which are multi-layered with humour, love and poetry as well as the famous anguish, philosophy and irony. His lyrics are some of the funniest yet most profound of any composer.
The rain continued but we didn't notice unless we happened to look up at one of the crowd shots on the video screens. In Britain we are used to getting wet. The audience had come well prepared with waterproofs. Leonard stood near the front of the stage, close to his audience, getting soaked himself. His blue scarf and trade-mark trilby offered him little protection from the English weather.
Leonard Cohen is accompanied on this tour by his long-time collaborator, Sharon Robinson who co-wrote some of his more recent songs. Her version of Boogie Street sounds better every time we hear it.
Leonard Cohen - The Encores
By the time the Leonard Cohen skipped back on stage for his first encore, the crowd was on its feet. From our past experience of other concerts, Leonard Cohen audiences are usually fairly restrained , there to listen rather than participate - but not at Wetbridge. Everyone belted out the choruses to So Long Marianne and Manhattan. Dino Soldo seemed particularly energetic. Neil Larsen was ice cool on the Hammond B3. Javier Mas looked rather cold; the Webb sisters and Sharon Robinson appeared to be loving every second of it.
When the Webb Sisters performed their solo of If it Be Your Will as one of the encores, the audience was rapt and you could hear a pin drop. Hattie Webb plucked her harp with tremendous energy and enthusiasm. Leonard Cohen, stood, respectful, hat off and listened. Leonard Cohen always display humility and he always shows respect for the musicians on the stage with him. He always introduces them and he always thanks them. You get the impression they are a team, and that everyone is equal. No Prima Donnas here.
Leonard Cohen - The Finale
As normal, I Tried to Leave You was the penultimate song, with every singer or band member taking a verse and putting their own personal touch to it. This was followed by Whither Thou Goest sung by the whole crew, including family members. Leonard finished by wishing everyone a safe journey home in the "tricky" weather, the peace and joy of the companionship of family and friends - or the blessings of solitude for those alone. He hoped we did not catch summer colds - though reports on the Leonard Cohen Forum from the Liverpool Concert two days later suggest that Leonard himself may have caught one.
It wasn't a perfect performance. The concert ended slightly earlier than billed. The first set seemed to be cut by one song. He did not perform his wonderful recitation of A Thousand Kisses deep in the second half - perhaps he thought the line "I'm like just another snowman standing in the rain and sleet" was tempting fate on a night of such terrible weather! There was not so much chat as usual. Leonard stumbled over his words a few times and actually lost his place in Closing Time. He stopped to ask Roscoe Beck where he was. But, in Leonard's own words "There is a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in". A perfect performance is not always the most entertaining; it is the human touches, the imperfections that make something stand out and shine.
And it didn't matter. The audience was the most enthusiastic and supportive I have ever seen. Cohen may be into his second year on the road with this tour, but he showed no sign of flagging, no sign of becoming bored or complacent. The Cohen team seems to be gaining in strength and feeding from the adulation they receive from their audience. There seemed to be a real chemistry between those on the stage and those in the crowd. The Leonard Cohen Forum buzzed for days afterwards, with one member suggesting that Wetbridge would be the defining concert of the tour.
It took us two hours to get out of the car park afterwards, but we didn't care. Leonard Cohen at Wetbridge is a concert we will always remember and one we will talk about for many years to come.
Meanwhile Leonard Cohen continues to tour. Weybridge was near the start of his 2009 European Tour and a 15 venue United States Tour is planned for autumn 2009.
Leonard is singing somewhere still.
This page was created on 07 August 2009