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July 17, 2009
One of the best parts of attending a Norwegian festival is the incredible hospitality and generosity afforded to its guests. From Tuesday through Friday during the course of Molde Jazz, there's the opportunity to take a boat out to Hjertøya, an island not far off the coast of Molde, where it's possible to relax, have a bite for lunch, meet everyone from media to festival sponsors and volunteers and enjoy some local students performing in a marching banda Norwegian musical tradition. In the case of Molde Jazz 2009, it's also a chance to enjoy the fine weather that's been hovering over the town since the beginning of the festival, apart from one brief rainfall.
Getting out onto the water also provides an opportunity to see a broader picture of the more than 200 mountains surrounding Molde. Some of these are relatively small, but plenty still sport snowcaps even mid-summer, and there's even the chance to ski for those ambitious enough to make the trip. The water in the fjord is clear, clean and cold, though there were some intrepid locals diving into the waters around Hjertøya. But for the most part, Molde guestsand other tourists who also came to the islandwere more interested in enjoying the sun, enjoying the company and enjoying the free food, beer and wine that was served.
Sitting outside on a covered patio for those wanting to stay in the shadewith temperatures hitting comfortable highs of around the 20-22 Celsius mark, it was hot enough to think about protection from the sun, though plenty of the island's visitors preferred to enjoy the warmth on the rocks near the dockspeople mingled and learned a little bit about each other. With media attending Molde from places abroad including England, Japan, Estonia and North America, there was plenty to talk about by the festival's fifth day and, as always, new connections were made that will continue long after the festival is over.
Returning to Molde after a couple of hours, despite the work and long hours involved in covering the festival, it felt like being on a real vacation. Of course, getting the chance to see so many outstanding performances in a concentrated period doesn't exactly feel like work, and for the festival's second-to-last day the outdoor party continued on the grounds of the town's museum, where singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen's eagerly anticipated performance was to take place that evening.
The Norwegian way of blending modernity with nature is remarkable, but part of it is enforced by the inescapable landscape. Whether it's because of waterways winding their way through cities like Bergen or because of the rolling topography of Molde, one thing is certain: any requirement to go anywhere will almost invariably involve having to climb at least one hillusually a good, steep one. The walk to Romsdamuseet was no different; the 15-minute walk seeming to go nowhere but up. In the case of Cohen's performance, it was well worth the effort.
With over 11,000 people still winding their way through the gates 20 minutes before the 7:00 PM show time, it was Molde Jazz's most heavily attended showeven more remarkable, when considering it represented nearly half of the town's entire population. Still, as ever, people were courteous as alcohol flowed freely with an audience made up of fans ranging from teenagers to seniors.
When Cohen took the stage---literally jogging on after his nine-piece band took their places ahead of himhe was clearly happy to be there. No surprise, given that this tourdespite being born out of necessity after millions of dollars was stolen from Cohen by a previous managerhas turned out to be the crowning achievement of his career. He may be close to hitting 75 later this year, but Cohen has never sounded better. His voice has truly aged like a fine wine, assuming a richness and depth that made definitive his delivery of many songs that are such a part of the social fabric that it's impossible not to have heard most of them, even without following his career.
It didn't hurt that Cohen had a crack band, the same band that can be heard on the Live in London (Columbia, 2009) CD and DVD. And while the first set faithfully followed that of those releases, the second set of a show that, with the break, approached the three-hour mark, deviated slightly, with "Famous Blue Raincoat" replacing "Sisters of Mercy" in the second of three encores, since the latter song appeared earlier in the set in place of "The Gypsy's Wife." With most of his backup band multi-instrumentalistswhether it was Javier Mas' Bandurria, laud, archilaud and 12-string guitar, Neil Larsen's keys, accordion and brass, Dino Soldo's keys, saxophones and wind instruments or Bob Metzger's electric and pedal steel guitarbassist/musical director Roscoe Beck's arrangements were filled with variety in an easygoing but never lightweight performance.
Cohen's never had a voice with great range or power, but the fact remainsa truth made especially evident in the film Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man (2005), where all but a couple of singers with far stronger voices completely butchered Cohen's poetry (Teddy Thompson being the notable exception) by forgetting that it's never about the voice, it's always about the prose: there are few singers alive who can deliver his words with the same pathos, irony and self-effacing humor. And hearing his gruff, low-register voice deliver a line like "Good night, my darling, I hope you're satisfied" in "Closing Time"for which the crowd went wildit's easy to see that as influential as Bob Dylan has been on generations of singers, so too has Cohen been a reference point, albeit one less often cited. Mark Knopfler would surely have not been the same had it not been for Cohen, especially during the ex-Dire Straits guitarist/vocalist's earlier, more poetic days.
The crowd was with Cohen from the first words of "Dance Me to the End of Love," singing along without any need for Cohen to solicit audience participation. And when he sang "The Future," a particularly relevant song in the soundtrack to Oliver Stone's ode to violence, Natural Born Killers (1994), it was still as chilling as ever. Cohen rarely spoke to the audience outside the context of his songs, but when he changed "And just when I climbed this whole mountainside" to "And just when I climbed these 200 mountainsides" in "So Long, Marianne," his specific connection to audience and location was unmistakable. Always the understated poet, Cohen didn't have to pander to his audience; his committed delivery was more than all that was necessary to establish a bond that his fans will walk away with and remember, even if he never plays in Molde again.
High points of the show were many but, unsurprisingly, "Suzanne" and "Hallelujah" were two of them, if for no other reason than Cohen demonstrated a simple but moving facility on guitar on the former and unexpected vocal range on the latter; his unerring pitch was maintained throughout the show. And as the show ended with the moving "Whither Thou Goest," where he thanked not only his band, but his road crew and audience, it was clear that Cohen may have been forced into this tour out of necessity, but this was no by rote performance. Cohen gave his all throughout, delivering a set of iconic songs with remarkable grace and elegance, and covering so much of his best material that it would, indeed, be hard to imagine anyone going home unsatisfied.
Tomorrow: Break of Day in Molde; Crime Time Orchestra, Jaga Jazzist, Arve Henriksen with Trio Mediaeval, Ståle Storløkken and Jan Bang.
Visit Leonard Cohen and Molde Jazz on the web.
All Photos: John Kelman
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