A Feast for the ages: Leonard Cohen returns to St. John’s

As Montreal’s poet-songwriter and master of romantic despair returns to St. John’s, the woman who has been organizing an annual local event to celebrate his music is finally brought full circle. This is Vicky Hynes’ account of Leonard Cohen’s April 20 performance at Mile One Centre.

I have had a “song affair” with Leonard Cohen since I was 15 years old, when I performed Famous Blue Raincoat in the dimly lit unheated St. John’s coffee house The Void.

This “song affair” with Cohen continued when I recorded Dance Me To The End of Love on my long overdue and only self titled CD, released in October of 2000.

Birth of ‘Feast of Cohen’

Through conversation with fellow musicians about songwriters who have impressed and had great influence on us over our lifetimes, came the idea to bring something special to the Christmas holidays and the void between St. Stephen’s Day and New Year’s Eve. I mounted the first Feast of Cohen at the LSPU Hall on Dec. 28, 2000.

Thirteen Feast of Cohen productions later, and the second visit by Cohen himself to St. John’s in five years, spurred me on to try to get the honour of introducing him here in Newfoundland. The CBC had the arrangement with Cohen’s Tour to promote and introduce him at his Canadian shows, and though a campaign to get me to introduce him was unsuccessful, myself and a few others from Feast of Cohen were invited to meet with Leonard briefly at his soundcheck Saturday afternoon.

“A very personal performance”

Myself, Sandy Morris, Bryan Hennessey, Jill Porter, Des Walsh and Joel Hynes met at Mile One Centre just before 4 p.m. and were escorted inside by Cohen’s music producer, Ed Sanders. What a privilege to be the only few people in the entire venue, where he gave us an intimate look at a working session with the band and the sound technicians – and a very personal performance.

Cohen began with Avalanche, then a couple of tunes I didn’t recognize. Then onto Night Comes On whereby I wept, so moving was his delivery. Then Dance Me, Different Sides, I Can’t Forget and finally The Future. Absolutely blew us all away with the intimacy of the occasion, only topped by his coming down from the stage to greet us and shake our hands. He thanked us for coming out to meet him, leaving myself and all in tow basking in his warmth and generosity.

From Holy Heart to Mile One

When news of Cohen’s second engagement here in Newfoundland broke, many of us were thrilled. The three consecutive performances Cohen gave us at Holy Heart Theatre in 2008 were so intimate given the size of the venue; a truly unique, close-up experience for all who were there. Everybody who had the pleasure of hearing and seeing him there was convinced that his performance at the Mile One Stadium couldn’t possibly touch it. Well, I can happily say we were so wrong!

The 3 hour and 45 minute performance Cohen gave us here Saturday night left me drunk with joy! At 8 p.m. the band entered the stage and the audience members went wild, leaping to their feet for the first of many standing ovations over the course of the evening. Obviously touched and humbled by the outpouring of affection and applause, he thanked us all right from the top of the program.

His opening performance of Dance Me To The End of Love and, later in the set, the rarely-performed Famous Blue Raincoat, seemed a happy coincidence for me. These two selections book-end every Feast of Cohen, and their inclusion and placement in his program was very gratifying for us.

Leonard Cohen live at Mile One Centre, St. John's, NL, Apr. 20, 2013. Photo by Graham Kennedy.
Leonard Cohen live at Mile One Centre, St. John’s, NL, Apr. 20, 2013. Photo by Graham Kennedy.

Cohen gave new energy to old songs like First We Take Manhattan and kept to his original stripped-down acoustic delivery for many of his early compositions. He charmed and wooed us by reciting three of his works to the minimal musical back drop of the band. Then he gave the stage to Sharon Robinson, whose voice and very special performance of Alexandra’s Leaving – one of the many songs Robinson co-wrote with Cohen over the past 30 years – made us all tingle with enjoyment.

He introduced his superb collective of musicians three times, giving them kudos for their many years of working together and dedication to his music. This was followed by an angelic performance of If It Be Your Will by the Webb sisters from Kent, England, who make up the remainder of the backing vocal section.

Three times Cohen waved “so long”, skipping youthfully across and exiting the stage. Three times he came back to the uproar of applause and just kept giving us more and more: So Long Marianne, The Future, Show Me The Place – it went on and on and he finally bid us goodbye and was out of sight.

‘Unforgettable’, ‘fabulous’, ‘stupendous’ and ‘captivating’ were all words I heard from the lips of the concert goers as I made my way out of the building. I’m dizzy with joy and look forward to having the pleasure of his return, and hopefully another performance like the one he gave last night.

For me, this past weekend will probably remain the most unforgettable of my entire career as a performing artist, and one that I will treasure for the rest of my life. See you at the next Feast of Cohen!

– Vicky Hynes

Cohen at the Junos

While Cohen was performing to the sold-out Mile One crowd, the 78-year-old was named ‘Artist of the Year’ at the Juno Awards dinner and gala in Regina. Those who had tickets for his second St. John’s show, originally scheduled for tonight but later cancelled, will have to watch the Juno Awards on CTV, where Cohen is up for the ‘Fan’s Choice Award’ and ‘Songwriter of the Year’ for his 2012 album Old Ideas, his first studio album since 2004. His son Adam Cohen is also nominated for a Juno in the ‘Adult Contemporary Album of the Year’ category for his album Like A Man.

Setlist: St. John’s, Newfoundland – April 20, 2013 – Mile One Centre

First set:
1. Dance Me to the End of Love
2. The Future
3. Bird on a Wire
4. Everybody Knows
5. Who by Fire
6. The Darkness
7. Ain’t No Cure for Love
8. Amen
9. Come Healing
10. First We Take Manhattan
11. A Thousand Kisses Deep (recitation)
12. Anthem

Second set:
13. Tower of Song
14. Suzanne
15. Sisters of Mercy
16. Waiting for the Miracle
17. Show Me the Place
18. Anyhow
19. Lover, Lover, Lover
20. Alexandra Leaving
21. I’m Your Man
22. Hallelujah
23. Take This Waltz

First encore:
24. So Long, Marianne
25. Going Home
26. Closing Time

Second encore:
27. Famous Blue Raincoat
28. If It be Your Will
29. Save The Last Dance for Me

Third encore:
30. I Tried to Leave You

Photo Gallery (Photos by Graham Kennedy)

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