On October 20, Columbia Legacy released a two-disc DVD+CD package titled Leonard Cohen: Live at the Isle of Wight 1970. Cohen is many things – among them, a poet, novelist, songwriter, guitarist and singer – but what he’s assuredly not is a jazz musician. That said, even for a diehard jazz wonk, there’s a lot to like about this release.
First of all, there’s the music, which is essentially the same on both the DVD and the CD ( though there are several songs on the CD that aren’t included on the DVD.) Along with a few poems, what we mostly get are live versions of songs from Cohen’s first two albums. Titles such as “Bird on the Wire,” “So Long, Marianne,” “The Stranger Song,” “Suzanne” and “The Partisan” are delivered with a blunt sort of stoicism – seen as well as heard on the DVD – that suits the material well.
The context for Cohen’s performance is certainly unusual. This brief synopsis appears on the back of the package: “Nearly 40 summers ago on August 31, 1970, a 35-year-old Leonard Cohen was awakened at 2 a.m. from a nap in his trailer and brought onstage to perform with his band at the third annual Isle of Wight music festival. The audience of 600,000 was in a fiery and frenzied mood, after turning the festival into a political arena, trampling the fence s and setting fire to structures. As Cohen followed the incendiary Jimi Hendrix [who would die less the three weeks later], onlookers watched in awe as [Cohen] quietly tamed the crowd.”
That gives the general flavor of what’s happening at the time. Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Bob Johnston and Kris Kristofferson were among the musicians standing stageside for Cohen’s 77-minute performance and, in interviews conducted earlier this year for the DVD, each shares recollections of the show and the crazy atmosphere that surrounded it. Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Murray Lerner filmed the concert. Teo Macero, ostensibly present to record Miles Davis’ set, supervised the live recording.