Review: Leonard Cohen Live At The Isle Of Wight 1970

November 11, 2009

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I don’t think it is necessary for me to laud my hero, Leonard Cohen, any more than I already have on this website. As a singer-songwriter, a poet, and a novelist he is in a class all his own. His first three studio albums are as flawless as they are unparalleled. I dare you to find a songwriter whose first three albums are crafted as well as Cohen’s. It is impossible. Songs Of Leonard Cohen, Songs From A Room and Songs Of Love And Hate contain nary a dull tune. His lyrical themes, his guitar playing, his high baritone voice are all perfect. Even if the man himself is not a fan of the latter album, I consider it to be his best. From “Avalance” to “Joan Of Arc,” it is my favorite recording of all time.

When I first received word that Cohen’s entire 1970 Isle Of Wight performance was to be released as a CD/DVD set, I immediately requested a review copy. The concert occurred nearly half a year before Songs Of Love And Hate was released, so the night’s setlist contained almost all of Cohen’s most-recognized, dare I say best songs from those first three albums. Aside from that, the aura of his performance has been something of legend in the decades since the festival. As the story goes, Cohen was awakened early the morning on August 31st, 1970 — either at 2am or 4am depending on your source — and brought onstage to perform to a riotous crowd of 600,000 concertgoers. After several days of music, the audience had trampled fences, set fires to numerous structures, and booed a number of artists off stage. The grounds had been transformed into a political arena. Backed by his band, The Army, Field Commander Cohen tamed the crowd with a mixture of songs, poems, and darkly comedic banter. His beatific presence and artistic brilliance had a  mesmerizing effect on the festival’s attendees. Only once does Cohen address a single member of the crowd. The remainder of his set literally forced 600,000 people to shut their mouths and behold his greatness.

The soundboard recording is truly awesome. At different points in the show, you can hear Cohen instructing his band, encouraging them to pick up or slow down the pace of a song, or add some spice to his voice and guitar combo. Standout tracks include “The Stranger Song,” “Tonight Will Be Fine” and “Lady Midnight.” The codeine-slow “Bird On A Wire” proved to be a downright hypnotic way to open his set, but the follow-up track, “So Long, Marianne,” picks up the pace nicely. As his performance rolls on, the backing band finds its groove and songs are injected with more and more life. “Suzanne” is slowed down a bit, allowing Cohen’s vocal delivery to come across like a meditative chant. On the DVD, it’s effect on the crowd is seen clearly as pockets of seated audience members stare up at the singer in complete awe.

Speaking of which, the accompanying DVD contains a film by Murray Lerner documenting Cohen’s performance. It includes interview clips with Judy Collins, Kris Kristofferson, Joan Baez and others. Although the entire performance was filmed, not all of it is shown. It should have been made available as a whole on the DVD. Furthermore, the songs chosen for inclusion are not in the correct running order. It’s a bit baffling why the director chose to build a film around select songs only to offer them to viewers out-of-order. Other than those two negative points, it is a very entertaining film.

Needless to say, I am much happier with the release of Leonard Cohen Live At The Isle Of Wight than I am with March’s Live In London. This 1970 performance is of greater historical significance and it boasts an impressive setlist of early songs. I always love listening to Cohen’s infamous BBC performances from the summer of 1968. In the past, each time I have heard those songs I have wondered why a full concert from that era was not released for casual and die-hard fans to enjoy. When the Live In London disc was released, I was happy to have a new Cohen album but disappointed by the concert choice. Making available both the audio and selected video from the Isle Of Wight festival is a phenomenal way of showcasing the genius of one of the world’s greatest songwriters. I highly recommend this CD/DVD set to all Cohen fans. And to those of you who may not know his work that well, I guarantee you will be moved by this album. It is impossible not to be inspired by the man’s limitless talent.

Leonard Cohen – Bird On A Wire
Leonard Cohen – Lady Midnight


  1. Gretchen

    I just might have to pick this one up. I saw him at Red Rocks this summer and it was AWESOME. I think I want to be Leonard Cohen when I grow up. Seriously.

  2. Terry

    ”Songs of love and hate’ is my favourite album of all time, with ‘Avalanche’ my favourite song. I spent £3000 following him round Europe recently, from Belfast to Barcelona and would have followed him to America if I’d any money left! Bought ‘Live at the Isle of Wight’ two weeks ago and it’s been playing on a loop since then! Excellent review Evan!

  3. Josh

    Van Morrisons first three albums are flawless. I actually think his five are perfect, culminating in the double live album.

    Elvis Costello’s first three are pretty perfect as well. I think he made many great subsequent albums, Get Happy, Blood and Chocolate, Imperial Bedroom, King of America, but the first three are always lauded the most highly.

    I’m not being argumentative, you dared, I love Cohen too, but Van and Elvis are very high on my list.

  4. |

    holy crap. gretchen! you’re alive? where have you been?

  5. Gretchen

    Why, I’ve been hiding out in the only state that ends in -ing! I’ve been spending a lot of time not commenting on anyone’s blogs or posting anything on my own. No good reason, really, although I have spent a lot of time on the road this summer and fall. So, to answer the question of where I’ve been…wow, I’ve been to twelve states this year! That sort of contradicts my first sentence, doesn’t it?

  6. OTTO

    Was about ot comment on Elvis Costello’s trifecta of perfect albums, but see that Josh has beaten me to the punch.

    Songs of Love and Hate tops my LC list as well. I was introduced to Leonard Cohen through the Philadelphia hardcore band Ruin in the early 80’s. They did covers of Master Song and Famous Blue Raincoat. Even in my teens, with my skateboard and combat boots, I couln’t miss the greatness.

  7. |

    Three flawless albums, I agree, but that haircut? He looks like Rick James.

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