Happy Valentine day! and it’s also a very good opportunity to bring some proper RB representation to one of my favorite artists ever: Leonard Cohen.
I believe that Cohen himself probably doesn’t need much of an introduction – he’s one of the best songwriters in history and a legend of music. What might need some explanation, though, is why we need his songs in our RB libraries. Whether you associate him with his early, acoustic-folk singer years, or his later doomsday-prophet-with-80’s-synths persona, neither are particularly attractive for Rock Band.
Well rest assured, those tracks here (and especially in the second part of this pack) aren’t only phenomenal songs, but also absolutely fantastic for RB. In fact, it’s been some of the hardest charting I’ve done in my life, as those instruments are full of surprises, great players and overall awesomeness. So stick with me, and let’s begin.
PART 1 – Early Years
This part is about Leonard’s early work, which is indeed mostly acoustic – but even here there’s a full band song that’s great to play on all instruments.
One of the biggest classics of his career, “Suzanne” probably doesn’t need any introduction either. The opening track to his first album, “Suzanne” tells the tale of Cohen’s platonic relationship with Suzanne Verdal, the wife of his friend. It’s presented here in the original and most well known version. It’s admittedly pretty minimalistic, but you’ve got some charming harmonies, nice guitar work and an all around beautiful and legendary song.
Going even more minimalistic, this is another of Cohen’s most legendary songs. “Chelsea Hotel” tells the story of a one-night-stand Cohen had with a woman, known to be Janis Joplin. It’s a beautiful song, full of some of Cohen’s best lines, including the legendary “We are ugly but we have the music”. It’s an acoustic guitar ballad, and while it’s not the most classic fit for RB, I found great pleasure in singing and playing along. And the song is so good, it’s worth it anyway.
The original song stems from Cohen’s debut album, and it’s a very sweet and lovely breakup song – one of the many highlights of that album. Here it’s presented in the 1979 live version – from the “Field Commander Cohen” live cd – where it was upgraded to an equally lovely full band song. In my opinion, this version is much superior to the original regardless of RB, but the extra instruments make it even sweeter in game. Particularly lovely are the keys here – with some great piano, and a phenomenal violin solo you’ll get to play on your keys. A beautiful version of a beautiful song, and a blast to play.
PART 2 – Live In London
So part 2 of this pack will focus on some of Leonard’s late classics, particularly from his iconic 80’s albums. However, all the versions charted here are live versions from 2009’s phenomenal “Live in London”. I know live versions are sometimes frowned upon, but in this case it was a complete no-brainer. So why did I choose live versions and not the originals? For three reasons:
- Playability – while the original album versions included mostly drum machines and synths, the live version is played with an absolute virtuoso band – which makes a much better RB song. Seriously, those took me forever to chart purely on the strength of his backing band.
The star of the crew is probably Javier Mas – a virtuoso who plays old stringed instruments like the banduria, laud and archilaud. He plays fantastic leads over two of those customs, ensuring challenging and interesting guitar charts. He’s backed by Bob Metzger on electric guitar who adds some nice parts.
Keys players will also have a blast, with the impeccable Neil Larsen on Hammond organ (sorry, no pro keys for those songs – actually transcribing what he plays is beyond my abilities), with some great wind instruments solos by “master of breath” Dino Soldo.
This whole ensemble is backed by the reliable drummer Rafael Bernardo Gayol and the musical, creative bass playing of Roscoe Beck, plus an ensemble of three phenomenal backing singers – Sharon Robinson and the Webb Sisters – on harmonies.
So basically, you have a truly phenomenal group of musicians who take full advantage of all RB3 instruments. Whatever you play, you’ll be able to have a lot of fun with those songs.
- Superior musically – ok, this is a matter of opinion, and possibly a controversial one. But even without RB, I’ll take those live versions over the original any day. In fact, I don’t remember the last time I even listened to the studio originals.
It’s my opinion that the original 80’s arrangements were the influence of producers, trying to make Leonard more up-to-date with the times. The album was very successful, so I guess the plan worked, but today it just sounds a bit outdated. Maybe I’m just old fashioned in that regard, but I think those songs sound much better in a live setting – they sound deeper, more detailed, more alive, played by this fantastic group of musicians, as opposed to drum machines. And Leonard also sounds more comfortable, in my opinion.
- Emotional reasons – “Live in London” wasn’t just another live record. The whole story begins when Cohen discovered that his longtime manager has stolen most of his money, including his savings and retirement funds. He was basically forced to come out of retirement and tour again for financial reasons. Not the most promising circumstances, but this sour beginning has turned very sweet.
Leonard’s forced comeback turned into a phenomenal tour-de-force. The tour reception was amazing, and it was extended again and again – way after the financial issues were resolved. A new chapter in Leonard’s career has begun, in which he played hundreds of shows over 6 years. He was playing packed arenas, as thousands of admiring fans came on to watch him and voice their appreciation every night. He conquered festivals like Glastonbury and Coachella – Telegraph actually named his set the best Glastonbury performance of all time (!). It also opened the songwriting floodgates again – 3 albums of new material followed and were very well received, while the never ending shows were documented with 4 live records.
For many younger fans, like myself, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see Cohen live. I’ve attended many live shows in my life, but the one time I saw Cohen in 2009 stands above them all – hands down, the single best concert I’ve ever been to.
Those last years were as successful and wholesome as can be – a huge celebration of Leonard’s talent and career. It was the one period of Leonard’s long career where I could take an active part in. And those performances represent those great times, the emotional last chapter of Leonard’s career.
So hell, I’ve said enough: here they are. Three absolute classics join the game: the romantic-yet-terrifying, and also amazingly beautiful “Dance Me to the End of Love”, the waltzy, perfect-for-Valentine’s Day “I’m Your Man”, and the apocalyptic, ominous, famously written from a terrorist’s point of view, and yet insanely catchy – “First We Take Manhattan”.
Happy Valentine’s day, and enjoy the songs!