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The CLUAS Archive: 1998 - 2011

This review was first published on CLUAS in 2001
Other albums reviewed in 2001

Leonard Cohen

A review of the album 'Chief Commander Cohen'

The twelve tracks on this live album were recorded in London's Hammersmith Odeon and the Dome Theatre, Brighton, over four dates during Leonard Cohen's British tour of 1979. Cohen has always surrounded himself with sterling musicians for live performance and here is no exception - in his backing band 'Passenger' along with additional players and vocalists (Jennifer Leonard Cohen's live album 'Chief Commander Cohen'Warnes and Sharon Robinson). The production throughout is rich and rounded: all sonorous bass-end and shimmering top. Highlights - if you need them - include Raffi Hakopian's tremulous, singing violin on 'The Window' and Warnes' sensuous vocal on 'The Smoky Life' - the perfect foil for Cohen's horny baritone. 'It's light enough, light enough,' for you to wish you were there. If you needed proof of Cohen's live calibre then you need look no further - the audience participation is testament enough: coordinated hand claps on the opening of 'Why Don't You Try' and rapturous hooting applause at the close of the final track, 'So Long, Marianne'.

There is little trace of the funereal bedroom sparseness of Cohen's early albums. Instead we have readings that are lifted with Hammond and flute and coast along underpinned by supple rhythms. At its best, this record is not so much the sound of a singer-songwriter supported by accomplished musicians as that of a great band playing together. Cohen's black humour also raises the proceedings, particularly in the doo-wop pastiche 'Memories' - although certainly not one of his best compositions, it does inject a sense of fun here. Adherents to the Leonard Cohen school of moroseness may be put off by the soft-rock leanings of these arrangements. Indeed it might be hard to forgive the Claptonesque guitar applied to 'Bird On The Wire' or the unexpected saxophone outbreak in the middle of 'So Long, Marianne' but this was after all 1979.

Still, for the fans that have stayed with him over the years this is a fine collection of Cohen moments. Also, as live albums go, this has more credibility than most, not least because at a time when live music is suffering from pop-industry dropsy some might need the succour that this dip into history provides.

Carol Keogh