Live at the Isle of Wight 1970
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Live at the Isle of Wight 1970

This film features Leonard Cohen’s breathtaking Isle of Wight performance, interviews with musicians and a look at the often-hostile atmosphere of the weekend-long festival that drew 600,000 fans. Part of the Coda Groundbreakers Theme.

The Angel Has Risen

4 Min Read

Leonard Cohen was dealt a lousy hand at the 1970 Isle of Wight festival.

He was scheduled to follow Jimi Hendrix on the closing night of the Woodstock-style gathering on an island in the English Channel — a thankless task for anyone, much less a folk poet who was just two albums into his career. It had been raining, there was lots of mud; the misery index among the estimated 600,000 attendees was high.

Clashes had been ongoing between organizers and the crowd over the border fence; eventually the barrier was overwhelmed. Bottles were thrown at Kris Kristofferson and others. In the middle of her set, the usually taciturn Joni Mitchell told the crowd it was “acting like tourists.” Greg Lake’s recollection of the festival, only the second gig for Emerson, Lake & Palmer, was of “a kind of random chaos taking place.”

Then, during Hendrix’s set, a pyrotechnics mishap led to a fire onstage, damaging keyboard gear and prompting a delay. Hours later, Cohen was roused from sleep in his trailer and told it was time to perform. The Canadian singer-songwriter took his time getting ready — in part because he’d ingested a sedative earlier, his keyboardist Bob Johnston recalled in Sylvie Simmons’ 2011 book “I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen.”

“He was calm because of the Mandrax,” Johnston told Simmons. “That’s what saved the show.” Science!

Cohen made his way slowly to the stage, and the members of his band known as Leonard Cohen’s Army, including violinist Charlie Daniels, arranged themselves in a tight half-circle of chairs around him. What followed was a remarkably focused set, one of the more unlikely great performances of the rock era.

Offering ruminative songs he developed in small rooms (and intended to be heard in small rooms), Cohen quieted, then fully captivated, the massive crowd. Without shouting or scheming for attention. Without saying much of anything. He infused “Diamonds in the Mine” with an Appalachian sadness, excavated the metaphors of “Bird on a Wire” as though appreciating their layers for the first time. (Before that tune starts, Cohen encourages the crowd to light matches so he can see their faces, “so you’ll sparkle like fireflies.”)

Director Murray Lerner, who was part of the camera crew at the event, wisely lets the early portion of the performance unfold without intrusive edits. He recognized that in order to convey the way Cohen cast his spell, it’s essential to show what happens, even if the tight closeups and lingering perspective shots from the crowd are not always visually arresting. When he does cut away to an artist’s recollection of the event, there’s an instant energy dip — no matter who’s talking or whatever very smart thing they have to say about Cohen. When the performance footage resumes, the vibe returns.

It’s a flat-out marvel of shifting perspectives, tracking interior/exterior thoughts in a way that defies conventional notions of pop song narrative.

By the middle of the set, it’s clear that Cohen and his accomplices sense they can relax, at least a little: The ambling “Tonight Will Be Fine” flirts with the upbeat, venturing into a mood of affirmation and celebration not typically associated with the somber Cohen. Then comes “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye,” one of Cohen’s structural masterworks. It’s a flat-out marvel of shifting perspectives, tracking interior/exterior thoughts in a way that defies conventional notions of pop song narrative. Cohen goes after all the nuances, unspooling it in front of this previously unruly gathering, on a soggy stage on an island off the Southern coast of England, working line by line with a low-key but clearly earned confidence. He knows it is a great song. And he’s curious to see how much of its greatness can get through in this setting.

There’s a lot of romance surrounding the ways reputations were made in the rock era. What was often a years-long multi-stage process is sometimes reduced to a single eureka moment. This is the one that’s frequently cited with Cohen, and it’s understandable — it’s a riveting performance. At least partly the awe of it has to do with Cohen prevailing in less-than-ideal conditions, which Lerner’s 2009 documentary does make clear — even if its timeline is scattered and it makes assumptions about how much people know about the festival. (Lerner’s previous film about the same event, the 1995 “Message to Love,” offers more context.) It’s almost better to approach this as a concert film, and luckily for that there’s a simple hack: Keep the remote nearby and be ready to hit “mute” whenever a talking head appears.

Tom Moon has been writing about pop, rock, jazz, blues, hip-hop and the music of the world since 1983. He is the author of The New York Times bestseller “1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die” (Workman Publishing) and a contributor to other books, including “The New Rolling Stone Album Guide” and “The Final Four of Everything.” Moon served as music critic at the Philadelphia Inquirer from 1988-2004, and has been a regular contributor to National Public Radio’s All Things Considered since 1995. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, GQ, The New York Times, Jazz Times, NPR Music, Blender, Spin, Vibe, Harp and other publications. Among his awards are two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Music Journalism awards. Trained as a saxophonist at the University of Miami school of music, Moon’s music credits include stints on cruise ships and several tours with the Maynard Ferguson orchestra. He returned to active music-making in 2012 in the Philadelphia area. Moon recently launched Echo Locator, a newsletter devoted to nearly vanished sounds, spirits, ideas and recordings.

Tom Moon has been writing about pop, rock, jazz, blues, hip-hop and the music of the world since 1983. He is the author of The New York Times bestseller “1000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die” (Workman Publishing) and a contributor to other books, including “The New Rolling Stone Album Guide” and “The Final Four of Everything.” Moon served as music critic at the Philadelphia Inquirer from 1988-2004, and has been a regular contributor to National Public Radio’s All Things Considered since 1995. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, GQ, The New York Times, Jazz Times, NPR Music, Blender, Spin, Vibe, Harp and other publications. Among his awards are two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Music Journalism awards. Trained as a saxophonist at the University of Miami school of music, Moon’s music credits include stints on cruise ships and several tours with the Maynard Ferguson orchestra. He returned to active music-making in 2012 in the Philadelphia area. Moon recently launched Echo Locator, a newsletter devoted to nearly vanished sounds, spirits, ideas and recordings.

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