Leonard Cohen at Sonera Stadium, Helsinki (view more photos from this show here.)
Leonard Cohen’s performance in Helsinki Sunday, September 2nd found the Canadian singer in good voice and spreading no small amount of uplifting energy among his many devoted Finnish fans. The open air-concert at Sonera Stadium featured a perfect blend of songs, a quiet and attentive crowd, and only a few drops of rain. This last fact was a lucky one considering the days before and after the show were rather rainier.
The 31 songs in Cohen’s set (25 songs divided between 2 sets plus 6 encore selections) came from albums spanning Cohen’s five decade long career: several songs from 2012’s Old Ideas, 1992’s The Future, 1988’s I’m Your Man, and 1984’s Various Positions with equal attention to the older songs fans have come to love going back to Cohen’s first album for Columbia Records, 1967’s Songs of Leonard Cohen.
Leonard Cohen, like Nick Drake, is an artist most music fans never forget discovering. I discovered Cohen (and not coincidentally, Drake) in 1989, at the age of 25, through a friend’s exquisite vinyl collection in Minneapolis. I don’t recall doing much else that summer weekend other than steep myself in the words and sounds of those many amazing records.
It would be 20 years before I saw Cohen live, and Sunday in Helsinki was only my second Leonard Cohen show. (My first was at England’s Glastonbury Festival in 2008.)
Cohen’s Helsinki show Sunday started spot on time at 7 p.m. The venue, Sonera Stadium, is usually reserved for football matches of the HJK (Helsingin Jalkapalloklubi) with a capacity exceeding 10,000. It’s not necessarily designed for concerts, but it does work as a music venue, and to its credit it was certainly the right size for the crowd. When last in Helsinki in October 2010, Cohen played indoors at Hartwall Areena.
Song summary Set 1:
Cohen played much the same set in Helsinki he has played elsewhere on his 2012 European tour which began August 12th in Belgium and wraps up in Portugal October 7th.
He opened with the Gypsy-styled “Dance Me to The End of Love,” Alexandru Bublitchi’s fiddle taking an early and exquisite prominence which it was to sustain throughout the entire evening.
Next was, the apocalyptic “The Future,” with The Webb Sisters, Cohen’s “sublime” – Cohen’s word choice, and fitting – backup singers doing cartwheels towards the end of the song, which prompted Cohen later in the show to also credit them with acrobatics. Despite gymnastics on the stage, the crowd remained mostly mesmerized and still, and would remain so throughout the show.
A little drizzle was felt in the front of the stands by the third song, “Bird on a Wire,” and a few people on the field pulled on plastic raincoats.
At Sunday’s show, it was the Cohen songs I was least familiar with that had the strongest emotional impact on me. The first of these was “Who by Fire,” with its chilling refrain of “and who should I say is calling?” The song, an existential ode inspired by a Jewish prayer, gave me goose bumps. The 12-string classical guitar interlude by Zavier Mas is a beautiful touch to this song when it’s performed live, and the added depth Cohen’s voice has taken on since he recorded it in 1974 for the album “New Skin for the Old Ceremony” also adds to the effect. (Here’s a great example of what this song sounds like live these days in a video from the London show in 2009: https://vimeo.com/5143032.)
An outdoor show so close to the sea would be incomplete without seagulls, and I was a little jealous of the view the one that was flying over during “Amen” would have had of the show. “Amen” was also the first song of the night from Cohen’s latest release, Old Ideas. All evening I was impressed with how wonderfully these new songs mixed with the tried and true older ones, testament to the fact that the new album is unquestionably up there with Cohen’s best.
On “Come Healing” the Webb Sisters brought their gorgeous harmonies. Cohen knelt while they sang, as he often does when members of his band solo or sing. He also removed his trademark fedora in respect. Bits of blue sky peaked through the clouds around “In My Secret Life,” a hint of a sunset that we unfortunately did not get.
“Waiting for the Miracle” was another show highlight for me. Even 25 years after discovering Cohen’s music I am still frequently downright blown away by the quality of the songwriting from both a literary and musical standpoint. Cohen’s songwriting regularly exhibits the perfect confluence of lyric and hook many songwriters strive for all their lives and hit (if they’re lucky) only on occasion.
“Going Home,” the new album opener, was well-received and immediately recognized. Old Ideas has sold incredibly well in Finland; in fact, all around the world it has been the highest debuting album of Cohen’s career.
Before the inspiring “Anthem” (“There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”) Cohen addressed the crowd at length for the first time. He thanked people for coming together under what he called “difficult circumstances,” mentioning a “coming conflict,” ostensibly referring to the bad weather which fortunately did not materialize. He added in his soothing, deep monotone, “It’s important that we sit in the rain and listen to music because otherwise we might grow soft, (pause) and decadent, (pause) and weak.”
Ever the gracious entertainer, Cohen also thanked the front of the house and monitor sound engineers and the lighting personnel, calling them all out by name and their city of origin.
Song Summary Set 2:
After about a 25 minute intermission, the second set opened strongly with “Tower of Song,” Cohen plunking out the childlike piano part on a keyboard. On the much-anticipated “Suzanne” Cohen played guitar, something else that has always impressed me about him, that he’s such a virtuoso lyricist and still a talented musician in his own right. The lighting effects during Suzanne had Cohen’s shadow reflected some 20 feet high on the curtains behind the stage.
“Night Comes On’ was another emotional highlight for me, and a song that I have enjoyed listening to several times since the concert, having been less-familiar with it coming into the show.
“Heart With No Companion” with its country fiddle had a country hoedown feel to it. Though definitely a toe-tapper, it still didn’t get this reserved crowd to move.
The sparse, dark and lovely “The Gypsy’s Wife” featured a mandolin solo and notably sweet tones on the prominent bass line from bassist and musical director Roscoe Beck.
Cohen introduced “Democracy” by saying it’s not a song about the upcoming US Presidential elections, but rather a song “about our deepest and best instincts” and that democracy “remains a goal.” Cohen plays jaw-harp on this song, and the jaunty “boing, boing, boing” of that instrument is somehow nothing less than perfect accompaniment. The Webb sisters pantomimed marching at the end to the song’s military drumbeat. Red white and blue lighting and fiddle were prominent as Cohen sang, “Sail on, sail on almighty ship of state.”
The Webb Sisters enjoyed a few minutes at center stage on “Coming Back to You,” Cohen only spoke part of the verse before turning the song over them to complete. Hattie Webb played a real harp on this song in contrast to Cohen’s jaw-harp on the previous song.
Then it was Cohen’s long-time songwriting collaborator Sharon Robinson’s turn at center stage for “Alexandra’s Leaving.” One lone fan on the soccer field slowly waived a cigarette lighter as she sang. This was quite touching, really, in a sea of otherwise no movement.
“I’m Your Man” got notable crowd response, followed by the likely highlight of the night for many people, Cohen’s much-covered “Hallelujah.” Cohen added our city name to the song as he typically does, singing, “I didn’t come to Helsinki to fool you.”
On “Take this Waltz” the lone lighter was back. God bless that fan’s perseverance.
“Take This Waltz,” a song based on Cohen’s own translation of a poem by Federico García Lorca, was the end of the set proper and Cohen made his initial thank you’s and goodbyes. Several people left at the show at this point, perhaps not realizing the quality or quantity of the encores to come.
It seemed to me as if the crowd came more alive for the encore than for the show itself.
“So Long Marianne” was a swaying sing-along (at least for us and maybe a couple behind us.)
On “First We Take Manhattan,” the crowd clapping along to the beat almost drowned out the mix. Maybe in response to the increased energy in the stands and on the field, Cohen was smiling. Beaming might even be more accurate. On this song the band also seemed to crank it up a notch.
“Famous Blue Raincoat” was another big crowd pleaser. “Different Sides,” from the latest record, whose refrain “You want to change the way I make love / I want to leave it alone” had already been stuck in my head for days. The live version only re-installed it there, where it remains.
It sounded like a wistful off-hand remark, but I believe it might be part of the original lyrics to “Closing Time” when Cohen said, “They ought to give the night a ticket for speeding,” referring to the fact the night really was drawing to a close.
After “Closing Time,” Cohen broke into an additional aptly-titled additional encore, “I Tried To Leave You,” permitting a final showcase of solos from the band.
And that was Leonard Cohen’s 2012 Helsinki show. But before leaving the stage for the final time, Cohen thanked Jarkko Arjatsalo, webmaster of Cohen’s extensive fan site leonardcohenfiles.com, for his support since 1995.
It was from Arjatsalo’s handy forum that I learned that the band hoped to play yet another encore, (“Save The Last Dance”), but a 10:45 curfew made that impossible.
Here’s the full set list:
Dance Me to the End of Love
Bird on the Wire
Who by Fire
Sisters of Mercy
In My Secret Life
Waiting for the Miracle
Tower of Song
Night Comes On
Heart with No Companion
The Gypsy’s Wife
Coming Back to You (performed by The Webb Sisters)
Alexandra Leaving (performed by Sharon Robinson)
I’m Your Man
Take This Waltz
So Long, Marianne
First We Take Manhattan
Famous Blue Raincoat
I Tried to Leave You