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Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Leonard Cohen and Neil Young: A Canadian Homecoming

Leonard Cohen and Neil Young

Most would agree that two of Canada's finest musical heroes are Leonard Cohen and Neil Young. Actually, both are true North American icons, if you will.

Last November in Vancouver, both Leonard Cohen and Neil Young played concerts on back to back nights at the Rogers Arena. The two evenings made for some interesting comparisons and contrasts for those fortunate to have attended both shows.

If you missed the experience, lucky for us, we have an in-depth review from Restless and Real "Neil Young and Leonard Cohen: A Canadian Homecoming" by Douglas Heselgrave:
Cohen’s Canada is infinitely smaller than Young’s.

The vast spaces and highways that connect our nation’s few big cities offered a vision of freedom and discovery for Young that was never explored by Cohen who contented himself with trawling the backstreets of post-war Montreal. His is a place of darkened cafes and smoky nights, and when nature intrudes at all, it is sensed from a distance or heard through the window. Rivers are far away, lulling and sacred and for Cohen the perfect aid to seduction. Hearing the boats go by, the running water reminds the listener of the passage of time. With the realization that ‘this too shall pass’, what better way to spend our limited time than locked in one another’s arms? For all of Young’s perceived hippie optimism, his songs are often darker than Cohen’s.

Rivers in his songs aren’t preludes to romance or the soundtrack of seduction; in Young’s art rivers are full of regret and death with bad deeds just around the corner. With the white boat coming down to bring murder and disaster, Neil is the everyman, all of our ancestors, who had to deal in the moment. When he sings, ‘Daddy’s rifle in my hand felt reassuring’, nobody who hears it feels any better or believes that safety is at hand.


For all of Young’s hipster cred, cardigans and trim beards were in short supply as the majority of Neil’s audience appeared to be comprised of rugged looking people who appeared like they had spent their lives working with their hands, planting trees or building houses. It seemed as if the term “salt of the earth” was invented for them as a shuffling parade of calloused, wind-blown and rain-swept individuals with calloused hands, tousled hair and faded lumberjack shirts past security to find their seats.

When Neil Young and Crazy Horse took the stage to the sounds of the Canadian national anthem, 17,000 surprised-looking people got to their feet. In over 30 years of attending musical events, this was the first time I’d ever heard a concert begin this way in Canada. While a friend sarcastically leaned over and said, ‘Neil’s sure milking the Canadian thing! He’s been in America too long!’ the majority of the crowd was moved, some to tears, before the band had played a single note. And, when they did start playing, the effect was astonishing: in one movement, the people who had just sat down, shuffled to their feet again as Crazy Horse’s music had a tribal, almost mystically transformative, effect on the crowd. It was a truly amazing spectacle to see a stadium full of mostly middle-aged people fall under Young’s spell as they began to lurch and sway in unison like Neanderthals around a campfire.

It wasn’t so much a concert as a primal communion in which the disparate crowd of laborers, lawyers, bankers and hippies swayed towards catharsis as they were bathed in drenching feedback. Nearly two hours later, just over half the time that Leonard Cohen typically plays for, the audience and the band were drained by the time the last notes of “Roll another Number” reverberated around the arena. Even though they looked like they could have played longer, Young obviously knows when the audience has been satiated; Crazy Horse’s music is a heady brew that needs to be sipped cautiously.


Like Neil Young’s crowd, Leonard Cohen’s audience also spans a wide range, but to judge by outward appearances, his is comprised of a seemingly more well-heeled and polished collection of people than had turned out the night before. Both crowds were peppered with people from many generations, from the young kids in their twenties trying to catch the last hippie wave from Neil Young’s guitar to the bearded nouveau bohemians who hoped to soak in the elegance of the fin de siècle despair illuminated in so many of Leonard Cohen’s songs.

In concert, Leonard Cohen doesn’t create the same kind of tribal, primal communion that Neil Young conjured; his show relied far more on elegance rather than the powerful pagan energy that the guitarist commanded. With Cohen at the helm, the words and music waltzed and swayed like a joyous mass for hopeless sinners who had somehow conned their way into paradise. The love that the audience showered Cohen with wasn’t like the unruly fist pounding worship that greeted Neil Young; it was quite unlike anything I’d experienced before. The instant Cohen skipped onto stage, a radiant, physical, wave of love that caught me in the back of the throat, pulsed through the stadium as more than a few people around me burst into tears.

The only other time I’d experienced anything close to that was when I heard the Dalai Lama speaking on his birthday to a crowd of Tibetans in India.
Complete in-depth review on Restless and Real "Neil Young and Leonard Cohen: A Canadian Homecoming" by Douglas Heselgrave.

Thanks Douglas!

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At 1/09/2013 09:06:00 AM, Blogger Matthew L. said...

What a beautiful review. It really gets to the heart of both men, and the power of music in general.

Also, the prose is very well constructed, and I loved how it was framed in the two artists' dissimilarity, in both their output, their experiences and the contrasting manner in which their fans display reverence for how the music moves them to feel.

I was moved just reading it.

Neil and Leonard - disparate artists from the same generation of folkies; two sides of a musical coin. Both compelled by weaves of personal experience and inner turmoil to prolifically create some of the most vibrant musical art of the past 40 or 50 years.

At 1/09/2013 09:18:00 AM, Blogger Mr Henry said...

Like a bird on the wire
Like a drunk in a midnight choir
I have tried in my way to be free
--Leonard Cohen

Danger Bird he flies alone
And he rides the wind
Back to his home
--Neil Young

At 1/09/2013 07:38:00 PM, Blogger July Archives said...

Fine words never made a custard .Most of these posts about Neil Young and others who are compared to or likened to him are in the main total crap .Read waging heavey peace its a great starting point in my mind .

At 1/09/2013 07:52:00 PM, Blogger July Archives said...

Fine words don,t make a custard .Attempting to compare Neil Young with any other artiste from what ever era is a bit futile in my mind .His musical path to date cannot be compared to any other person in the relatively short history of popular music circa mid fiftys to date . Put another way Elvis onwards. No one [even Dylan] has kept true to his art, winning or losing criticly along his musical ride.WOW what a great lovely surprise David Bowie surfaces with a great new tune .

At 1/09/2013 08:00:00 PM, Blogger Thrasher Wheat said...

@Mr H - thanks as always. Great songs.

@July Archives - I'm not sure the author was really trying to compare the artists as much as his experience of seeing the 2 concerts on consecutive nights. It's pretty natural to make comparisons and this case made total sense to us.

It was great writing and way beyond a standard concert review. it really drew us in with the evocative and visceral writing. Like Matt said above:
"Also, the prose is very well constructed, and I loved how it was framed in the two artists' dissimilarity, in both their output, their experiences and the contrasting manner in which their fans display reverence for how the music moves them to feel.

I was moved just reading it."

just separating the wheat from the chaff...

At 1/10/2013 04:45:00 AM, Anonymous Anna Bollard said...

These men are just so very talented. Their music is timeless and it just never gets old just listening to them. I really enjoyed this very much.

At 1/10/2013 07:27:00 AM, Anonymous deadflowers said...

I was lucky enough to see Dylan, Cohen and Young in the space of a couple of weeks in Montreal. All fantastic shows and I do think its completely natural to draw comparions on some level.

I really enjoyed this piece, brought back fond memories of the shows I attended.

For me the experience caused me to reflect on quite how different these three artists are from one another, yet how in awe I am of all three.

Interestingly both Dylan and Young seemed to split fans / critics whereas I can't find evidence that anyone left a Cohen concert anything other than delighted.

Three fantastic nights which weren't even tainted by the potentially soul destroying size / design of the venue (Montreal Bell Centre) which turned out to be far better than any UK equivalent.


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