Leonard Cohen - Live at the Isle of Wight 1970

Leonard Cohen
Live at the Isle of Wight 1970


First Appeared in The Music Box, May 2010, Volume 17, #5

Written by John Metzger

Tue May 25, 2010, 06:30 AM CDT


A lot of blame for the disastrous Rolling Stonesí concert at Altamont in late 1969 was placed upon the organizers of the affair. Although their judgment certainly was off-base, it also is true that the events that transpired were both signs of the times as well as harbingers of things to come. Hastened by assassinations, protests, and political unrest, the prevailing mood, not only in America but also around the world, was changing.

By the following summer, the darkness had spread to England, where it took its toll upon those who had gathered to witness the third annual Isle of Wight festival. Like Woodstock, the crowd that had assembled was much larger than anyone had anticipated. Once again, no one wanted to pay for the experience. Amidst manic performances by The Who and Jimi Hendrix, walls were torn down, fires erupted, and chaos ensued. In hindsight, it was, perhaps, only luck that had kept Woodstock from suffering a similar fate.

Under these less than ideal conditions, Leonard Cohen stepped onto the stage at the Isle of Wight. With just two albums under his belt, (Songs of Leonard Cohen, Songs from a Room), he was a relative newcomer to the music scene, which makes his nearly effortless mastery of the chaotic situation even more remarkable. While his fellow folk-singers were bombarded with bottles and relentlessly booed, Cohen managed to hypnotize the crowd and woo it into submission with a performance that was colored with Dylan-esque hues ó whether it was the gentle strum he supplied to One of Us Cannot Be Wrong or his rustic, ragged, back-porch sing-along rendition of Tonight Will Be Fine.

Still, to comprehend the magnitude of Cohenís appearance at the festival, one must view the hour-long documentary that accompanies Live at the Isle of Wight 1970. Although it replicates the bulk of Cohenís performance, Live at the Isle of Wight 1970 doesnít feel like a video designed solely to showcase his work. New interviews were conducted with Kris Kristofferson, Judy Collins, Joan Baez, and Bob Johnston ó whom Cohen had tasked with bringing his set to fruition. This footage was then paired with material that was plucked from the same reels of film that had spawned Message to Love: Live at the Isle of Wight. The resulting program ó along with Sylvie Simmonsí extensive liner notes ó paints a complete portrait of the scene. In the process, it highlights the horrifying devastation that ensued as well as the peaceful resolution that swept through the crowd during Cohenís set.

While listening to his performance, one can hear Cohenís talent as a poet in all of its glory. As he casually strolls through songs laden with dense imagery, the violence and mayhem that surrounded him simply disappeared. Cohen managed to counter the chaos with a soothingly deliberative set that captured the weariness of those to whom he was singing. His words acted as balms for the wounds, both psychic and physical, that had been inflicted over the course of the festivalís five-day duration. Within the context of the film, Bird on the Wire becomes a hymn; Tonight Will Be Fine turns into a comforting gospel uprising.

Much of Live at the Isle of Wight 1970 features close-ups of Cohenís face. His disheveled appearance made him appear as if he had ascended from the audience. Yet, the steady confidence of his delivery combined with his penetrating gaze to give him the aura of a wizard who had cast a spell. The religious imagery inherent to his compositions further enhanced the feeling that he wasnít passing judgment on everything that had happened, but rather was delivering sermons filled with wisdom and guidance. He asked for patience and received it, and he found the beauty that lurked within songs about death, heartache, and suicide. In the end, Cohen managed to turn fires of destruction into matches lit for peace, illuminating the good that still existed in the crowd, even as he plunged into the darkness that surrounded him. starstarstarstar


Of Further Interest...

Jeff Buckley - Grace: Legacy Edition

Bob Dylan - Live 1975: The Rolling Thunder Revue

The Who - Live at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970


Live at the Isle of Wight 1970 is
available from Barnes & Noble.
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!


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