John Wesley Harding knows when he gets an email, phone message or a piece of postal junk addressing him as “John,” it’s coming from someone who’s never met him. He’s known to friends as “Wes,” since his real name (the one he uses in his second career as an award-winning author) is Wesley Stace. Harding’s 15th album, Who Was Changed And Who Was Dead, depicts an artist well aware of what he does best: marvelously witty lyrics delivered in an emotion-wracked singing voice. Harding will be guest editing magnetmagazine.com all week. Read our Q&A with him.
John Wesley Harding: Leonard Cohen is a 75-year-old man at the top of his game. My previous “favorite concert of all time” was his show at The Royal Albert Hall in 1993 on The Future tour. And this was better. He certainly sang better. So I think I may have just seen my favorite-ever gig. Steering clear of 2004’s Dear Heather and with only a few glances at 2001’s Ten New Songs (the two albums he’s released in the last 17 years), Cohen, without a hint of nostalgia and with infinite grace, not to mention surprising vocal and physical agility, entertained us for three short hours with the very greatest of his greatest songs. The band was simply phenomenal—in the ’70s, they’d all have had beards and been called The Quiet Storm—fleshing out the programmed Euro-austerity of the studio records into living, breathing organisms. “I call to you, I call to you,” Cohen sings on “Ain’t No Cure For Love,” “but I don’t call soft enough.” The sound embodies his lyrical vision.
The concert was sublime and profoundly moving, from the moment Cohen bounded onstage, through the humility with which he doffed his hat to every soloist, to the final moment he thanked everyone—and I mean everyone (and I mean by name, including the woman who looked after that hat)—after the valedictory hymn. So often he kneeled on the floor, as if in supplication; for Cohen, his songs are prayers. And the concert was, for its audience, a religious experience. All eyes are on Cohen, but his are beyond. Every performer of a similar vintage should be required to see these concerts as part of a compulsory refresher course, to hear the singer wring ever last drip of meaning from each word as though (literally) his life depended on it. The gentle humor, which has always held his work together (but which was ignored during the dull years, when his name unfairly became synonymous with the depressed bedsit singer/songwriter) is here, too, in his delivery and the show’s art direction. And in every line: a thought, a feeling, perhaps a change of content (“Give me crack and careless sex,” he now sings on “The Future,” replacing “anal” with “careless,” thoughtfully reconsidering a crisis).
Will I ever see Leonard Cohen again? I hope so. I wonder. His show is truly redemptive and leaves you feeling better and more generous. Even if you have been sitting behind the only person in this beautiful venue who is singing along and pumping his fists. It is by no means the smallest wonder of the night that I bore him no ill will. I had much better things to do. Watch a video of “The Future” from this year’s Coachella after the jump.
This concludes “John Wesley Harding Week” here at magnetmagazine.com. Thanks to Wes for his insightful criticism and excellent taste. Be sure to check out Who Was Changed And Who Was Dead.