Concert Report: Hanging Rock (20 November)

Well it’s just over 36 hours since Leonard and his band left the stage on a chilly Victorian evening at Hanging Rock, and I’m still struggling a little to solidify the many thoughts and emotions evoked by this unique and remarkable event. I’ll give it a go anyway πŸ™‚

For those who don’t want to read all the gritty details, the summary of the Hanging Rock show is simply this: it was a night that had the potential to be one of those mind-shattering once-in-a-lifetime outdoor concert experiences, but ultimately fell short of this through no fault of either the performers (who were great) or the crowd (who were great). The weather was just SO COLD. To steal (and utterly mangle) some of Leonard’s poetry, the entire show could be summarised:

The night is cold,
But the crowd is hot.
The applause pleads for more singing,
Leonard’s throat … does not.

OK, so clearly I’m no poet … but you get the idea.

Now on to the detailed report of the night.

Hanging Rock — The Venue

For those less familiar with Australia, Hanging Rock is a fairly famous rocky formation in Victoria’s Macedon Ranges National Park. It’s located about 60Km north of Melbourne and is a beautiful spot. The landscape around this area is fairly typical Aussie bushland — if you’re thinking a mix of tall eucalyptus and low scrubby trees, and long grasses with the occasional grey kangaroo jumping through it, you’re on the right page. There’s more information about the place than you’d ever needΒ here. Most of the fame associated with this particular rocky outcrop comes from it being featured in the famous Peter Weir film “Picnic at Hanging Rock” (1975) in which a group of Victorian-era schoolgirls go to the place and disappear under mysterious and possibly mystical circumstances.

For the Leonard Cohen concert, the sleepy little place in the middle of nowhere had been transformed somewhat from its normal quiet isolation. A stage was set up directly adjacent to the rock on a big flattish expanse of grass. In front of that, a vast field of white plastic chairs made up the reserved seating area. Behind that was the grassy General Admissions area where people were encouraged to set up picnic blankets and the like, and right at the back were the merchandise stands, the bars and the food concessions. All in all a pretty typical set up for an outdoor concert, but in quite an extraordinary location.

I flew over from Adelaide on the morning of the concert and drove up from Melbourne, arriving about lunch time. Because I had not much else to do, I went to the venue fairly early, arriving at about 2PM — an hour before the gates opened. I encountered quite a bit of traffic getting to the venue, but it was fairly free flowing at the time I was making my way there, so not too painful. [I understand from those arriving later (and a comment made by Paul Kelly during his support performance) that things were much more congested later, with cars being lined up bumper-to-bumper for 3.5 Km or more.] The car park had itself only been open for an hour when I arrived, but the main parking areas were already more than half full and there were many many hundreds of people queueing in a snaking line leading back from the gates, down the side and back of a big grassy field. Mostly people were fairly well behaved in the queue, setting up little impromptu picnic chairs and blankets and enjoying good food and wine under the unrelenting sun. The queue went past some virgin scrubland at the back of the concert area, and small groups of grey kangaroos could occasionally be seen watching the assembled humans with a bit of a quizzical glance before hopping away into the trees.

When I arrived and parked my car, Leonard and band were in the middle of doing a soundcheck … so I got to hear the (very distant) sound of a few songs being performed. For the record, the sound check songs that I heard were: Democracy, Bird on the Wire, Feels So Good, Tower of Song, Suzanne, If It Be Your Will.

Gates opened spot on time and it was a relatively well ordered affair to get everyone into the venue. Inside, generally things seemed fairly well set up. There was free water, and the (unisex) toilet blocks seemed plentiful enough — sometimes a bit of an issue at outdoor events. Some folks who were seated in the General Admissions area (at the back) have written that the sound and view from there were sub-par … I can’t really comment, except to say that on the occasions that I went for a wander down to the back of the venue I was struck by exactly how far away from the stage those people were seated. In the front section, sound was actually really good.

The Changing Temperature

The big story of the afternoon and evening was really the way the temperature changed. Perhaps the best way to convey an impression of how this happened is to describe my attire at different stages of the day. When I first arrived at the venue it was a hot and sunny day and I was a little worried that, in a long sleeve shirt I would be too hot … I had to actually roll up my sleeves while waiting in the queue and put on sun block. As the first couple of support acts played, the sun started to dip behind the stage and my area fell into shadow … my shirt sleeves quickly got rolled back down after Dan Sultan’s set, and at some time during Paul Kelly’s set my emergency jacket (a thick fleecy hoodie) got put on. By the time Leonard reached the stage, I was already starting to feel chilly even with the hoody zipped up … and by the time he came back from the second set (as the sun was just setting), I was definitely shivering with cold and trying to keep my hands firmly inside pockets at all times when I was taking photos or writing notes.

The situation on stage seemed to be a little worse again. The stage was raised up a metre or more above the level of the crowd, and was pretty open on both the left and right sides. You could see a breeze blowing across the stage, ruffling the curtains at the back bearing Leonard’s logos and pictures. Even at the beginning of Leonard’s performance, pretty much everyone on stage looked cold. Neil came out with a thick scarf right at the beginning (which made him look more like a beat poet than usual). The Webb Sisters seemed to have a little fan heater set up on stage in front of them.

As the evening progressed, the temperature just seemed to drop lower and lower. Every time the Webb Sisters came back on stage after a break, they seemed to have heavier and heavier clothes. After the interval, Leonard returned with a curious wardrobe combination — a thick scarf around his neck, but sunglasses on his face (I assume because of glare from the still-setting sun). The glasses got removed a couple of songs later. In the encore set the Webb Sisters wore woolen glooves (except when they were playing instruments).

While you may imagine that such bitter cold might have the effect of dampening the crowd … that didn’t happen (see below). But it did have some obvious effect on the performers, particularly the singers. Leonard’s voice, which started out reasonably strong at the beginning of the night, was definitely picking up a throatier, croakier tone towards the end of the night. The Webb Sister’s solo singing in If It Be Your Will also seemed less crisp than usual, although given the circumstances was still quite exceptional. During The Partisan, there were a couple of times where the camera was showing a close-up of Leonard singing and you could occasionally (when the camera angle was just right) see the fog coming from his mouth when he sang. At the end of one of the later songs in Set 2 (or maybe in the first encore), I spotted Leonard taking out a handkerchief and wiping a runny nose … I’d have to say I related, mine was running too just from the cold temperature.

The inhospitable temperature was, I think, a big contributor to the show being shorter than most recent performances. After Leonard played Suzanne, the Webb Sisters and the roadies looked to him to see whether he was going to play any more acoustic solo songs (Avalanche and A Singer Must Die were planned, according to the set list). He didn’t hesitate too long in just signalling that everyone should come back on the stage. Later in the night, everyone seemed to be uncomfortable but giving it their all irrespective of the cold. One interesting thing I noticed: as the band kicked off the first few bars of Closing Time (the very last song), I spotted Leonard giving a hand gesture to Rafael, kind of pointing upwards. Almost immediately the tempo of the song went up a notch or two — I guess maybe Our Man was keen for the song to be faster (thus shorter) so he could get backstage sooner to a warm beverage πŸ˜‰

Sharon Is Still Missing

As with the Adelaide concert on Thursday, Sharon was totally missing from the performance at Hanging Rock. I believe there still hasn’t been any official (or even unofficial) explanation … I only hope that whatever problem is keeping her offstage isn’t too serious, and that she’ll be back on board soon. The crowd certainly missed having her along … I heard numerous people in the area around where I was sitting asking “Where’s Sharon?”

If it’s the case that (as in Europe) Sharon is having some voice problems, I can imagine that resting for the cold Hanging Rock show would probably have seemed a good idea. Hopefully, however, we will have her back for the Perth show on Wednesday!

The Crowd

Compared to other concerts on Leonard’s Down Under tour, the crowd at Hanging Rock was a LOT more diverse age-wise. There were quite a lot of family groups, with people even bringing toddlers and babies along to enjoy the music. There were also a lot more Gen-X and Gen-Y folk in the audience than is usual.

The crowd at these massive outdoor events is always a bit more nuts than crowds at indoor concerts. There’s something about being part of a massed gathering of 15000+ people, and being able to see the vast audience, that is just energizing in a way that sitting in dark hall can’t really match. Plus, having several great Australian support acts (and perhaps plentiful, if not inexpensive, wine) really worked to excite the audience almost to fever pitch even before Leonard and band took to the stage. There’s no word other than rapturous to describe the way that the Hanging Rock crowd greeted Our Man at the beginning of his performance. Right down the front there was a small crush: initially a few people in the Reserved area left their seats to get photos from front-row centre (right up at the crowd barrier), then a few more noticed and followed suit, and so on … until by the time we were half way through Dance Me To The End Of Love there must have been a cluster of 50 or more people up front snapping away. The security guys tolerated it for a little while, but were pretty quick to break up this mass of people standing in the aisles. This same phenomenon reappeared on a smaller scale several times later in the night …

Generally the audience response was exceptional … applause was plentify, there were plenty of calls and whistles and numerous people calling out in admiration (far too many to record individually). Because the crowd went back so far there was a weird effect from where I was sitting that it sounded like there was just an undifferentiated sea of applause and cheering happening somewhere behind me. From the stage it must have been quite a spectacular sight — certainly Leonard and the band seemed slightly awed by the crowd’s demonstrative response.

The Hanging Rock crowd also seemed much more interested than usual in getting up and dancing in the aisles. It’s hard to say how often this happened (I could really only see what was going on close to me), but Leonard particularly remarked on the dancing in Everybody Knows and I spotted people dancing in many of the later songs, including Take This Waltz. Unfortunately the security guys seemed to have been told that people needed to stay in their seats, or at least that the aisles needed to be kept clear at all times. So, they worked pretty hard to curtail most of the dancing that took place down the front.

There was also a little bit of audience singing along in the chorus of Hallelujah, but nothing like the loud and angelic strains of the Hunter Valley crowd in 2009. Oddly, the more audible response was generated by a LOT of people speaking the line “I’m Your Man” along with Leonard.

Another sign of the pervasive sense of energy that ran through this entire performance (but was particularly tangible after Hallelujah and I’m Your Man) was the fact that once the crowd were on their feet for the first encore, they seemed to pretty much stay standing. At all of the stadium shows, it’s been the case that as soon as the band starts playing, everyone sits down again. But at Hanging Rock, being up the front was a little like being in a (polite) moshpit mostly populated by Baby Boomers, particularly during songs like First We Take Manhattan when even the reserved Bank Manager types around me were getting right into shaking their bodies to the music! Really nice.

Auspicious Meetings

Part of what made Hanging Rock a particularly special day for me was the opportunity to meet up with three different groups folks from the LC Forum. In the interval between Leonard’s two main sets, I was lucky enough to track down ania who was, like me, seated in the Reserved area down front. As before it was absolutely wonderful to say hi to her and her little band of Cohen fans (including Andrew of the donated wine, Dominic and … I believe her parents!). She was kind enough to offer me a glass of champagne … who was I to say no!

Not long after meeting up with ania I spotted Helena from Adelaide, aka “Leonard’s #1 Fan”. While she’s not a forum member (at least not yet), I’d spoken with her briefly at the Adelaide show and written about it here. So, when I saw that she was seated only a row in front of me — equipped with her trademark laminated love heart banner — I couldn’t help but say hello. Because I’d written about her (twice actually) on the forum, I thought it only fair to give her the URL to check out the forum … and a freebie LC Forum Lanyard. These are now *serious* collectors items (well, in my mind they are :-). I notice that a nice photo of her also made it into the ABC News report about the show.

At the very end of the show, as everyone was filing out, I went down to the front of stage hoping to grab one of the on-stage set-lists. Helena was also there and also keen to do the same. As we called out (mostly in vain, as it happens) to the roadies, another guy came to the stage with the same goal in mind … this was in fact the LC Forum’s very own skipper1967, a wonderful guy who I’d almost met up with last year in Melbourne. He had driven over 5 hours down from Sydney to be at the show. After we both realised who the other person was, we had a bit of a short discussion about Leonard, the Universe and everything .. right up until the guys packing up the venue told us to move on. I guess they figured we should be in a hurry to get back into our cars and wait for the car park to clear πŸ™‚

Sadly, due to poor mobile phone coverage at the venue, I wasn’t able to catch up with the forum’s own Andrew (Darby).

The Set List

Having now seen a scan of Leonard’s on-stage set-list, I can confirm that it was planned to be the same as the Adelaide show. Interestingly, the person who nabbed the set-list also got the two pieces of paper taped to it which contained the lyrics to Night Comes On, maybe planned as a surprise inclusion. For the first set the performance unfolded pretty much according to plan … but after the interval several songs were jettisoned. Night Comes On definitely didn’t make it. Graciously, however, Leonard still played two encores despite the unwelcoming weather.

The songs played on the night were:

Set 1

01 Dance Me To The End Of Love
02 The Future
03 Ain’t No Cure For Love
04 Bird On The Wire
05 Everybody Knows
06 Who By Fire
07 The Darkness
08 Chelsea Hotel #2
09 Waiting For The Miracle
10 Anthem

Set 2

12 Tower of Song
13 Suzanne
14 Sisters Of Mercy
15 The Gypsy’s Wife
16 The Partisan
17 Hallelujah
18 I’m Your Man
19 A Thousand Kisses Deep [recitation]
20 Take This Waltz

Encore 1

21 So Long, Marianne
22 First We Take Manhattan

Encore 2

23 Famous Blue Raincoat
24 If It Be Your Will
25 Closing Time

Specific Songs

Aside from tall the general impressions I’ve related above, there were a few interesting things that I noticed about Leonard’s performance of particular songs:

  • The Future: Leonard gave a short intro saying “Thanks for inviting us to this sacred place. It’s a great honour to play for you tonight.” He then gave his usual comment about the band giving us everything tonight.
  • Everybody Knows: There were people dancing all the way through the performance of this song; Leonard even commented on it at the end, saying: “You’ve got some good dancers in this country.”. Somewhere in the middle of the performance there were some really loud “waaahs” from the audience. Straight after singing the line “When you’ve done a little line or two”, Leonard held his finger up to his nose and gave a very obvious sniff … This is a bit ironic considering the *real* sniffling he was to do later on πŸ™‚
  • Who By Fire: As Javier started his introduction to this song (another Middle-Eastern inspired solo), two white cockatoos flew gracefully across the stage and crowd. It was one of those very special Aussie outback moments πŸ™‚
  • The Darkness: Before playing this song, Leonard moved forward some of his normal comments about summer colds: “Thanks so much for your warm reception and please button up and put your scarves and coats on – don’t catch a summer cold.” After singing the line “The present’s not that pleasant” he gave one of his humourless little laughs. Minor lyrical alteration: “I don’t drink no alcohol.” I’ve never noticed before, but during this song Javier abandons his traditional instruments and picks up an electric guitar (a shiny red one).
  • Anthem: Before this song Leonard said “Thanks so much friends. Have you noticed the moon?”, gesturing with his hand at the full moon which had only just risen above a hill. He then went straight into “So, ring the bells that still can ring”, omitting his normal comment about being priveleged to gather. Rafael’s relationship with “it” has taken a turn I will have to admit I didn’t predict: “On the drums a sculptor of silence. Laying it down, bringing it home, putting it to bed, tucking it in, clipping its toenails, feeding it warm milk. The prince and priest of passionate percussion.” The Webb Sisters were introduced: “The celestial harmonies of Hattie and Charlie Webb”. At the very end of the band intros, Leonard said “Thanks for your kind attention. If you can take the chilly weather, we will be back in a few minutes with the second part of the concert. Get something warm or strong to drink. Buckle up and we will see you in a very few minutes.”
  • Tower of Song: Before making his normal remarks about his keyboard which goes by itself, Leonard welcomed the audience back: “Friends, friends … thank you so much for staying.” After receiving applause for his keyboard solo, he remarked “Your kindness knows no bounds”. As the song ended, and the Webb Sisters were wrapping up their “de do dum dums”, I could just hear Leonard off-mic saying to them something like “Great singing!”
  • Suzanne: After having commented about Leonard’s guitar playing seeming “angry” sounding in Adelaide, it was interesting to see a very flowing performance at Hanging Rock. It’s a shame that this is the only solo song we got.
  • The Partisan: For this performance, the lyrics were back the English ones for the lines “I have many friends / some of them are with me”
  • Hallelujah: The namecheck was “I did not come to Hanging Rock to fool you”, but more of a surprise was a lyrical substitution where Leonard changed the line “I know this room, I’ve walked this floor” … I guess since we weren’t *in* a room he felt the need to change it. We got something like “I know this field and I’ve locked(?) this floor” instead. Overall this was a more gravelly voiced Hallelujah than usual, doubtless due to the cold.
  • I’m Your Man: As mentioned above, the crowd were really worked up for this performance, cheering and hooting all the way through. A couple of minor lyrical elaborations from Adelaide were also here: “You know damn well you can” and “If you want to work the street that’s alright, I’ll disappear for you”
  • A Thousand Kisses Deep: Given the general crowd energy by this point in the evening, this probably turned out to be the least reverent version of this poem reading I’ve heard. Most notably, just as Leonard began the line “I’m good at love”, he got interrupted by a big cheer from the crowd and got a little thrown, stopping in his tracks. That lead to an even bigger cheer, which caused Leonard to give a little laugh. The laugh got a cheer. Eventually he was able to continue.
  • First We Take Manhattan: As mentioned above, down the front (at least, I can’t vouch for elsewhere) there was a real dancing party vibe for this song. There were constant calls from audience throughout, a few very loud howls, and lots of people dancing or swaying to the beat. It was quite a remarkable atmosphere. Between singing “Remember me” and “I used to live for music”, Leonard gave another of his evil little laughs.
  • Famous Blue Raincoat: When singing this song, Leonard’s voice was starting to sound quite strained. Everyone at the front remained on their feet for the whole song. I’m not sure, but I think there were a few minor problems with Leonard’s mic, since I heard a few odd clicks and pops at one point. The Hanging Rock crowd gave this song the biggest and most enthusiastic response to this song I’ve seen to date – there was a huge, long applause at the end.
  • Closing Time: Leonard’s intro: “Well listen friends, we’re getting close to the end. So I’m afraid to tell you now but it’s Closing Time.” As noted above, just as the song was getting going, Leonard signalled to Rafael to speed it up. Leonard’s voice seemed very throaty by this point. At the very end he gave an abbreviated and somewhat stilted version of his normal farewell. For a long time after Leonard and the band had vacated the stage, the applause and shouts were still going strong. Even after the “house lights” went up it was clear that the crowd was hungry to hear more … but it obviously wasn’t to be.

Car Park Chaos

At the end of the night, after all the performances were done … that’s when the event’s careful order seemed to break down a bit. Others have written about the very slow and disorganised trek out of the car park. Yes it was entirely chaotic, but … to be fair to the organisers, I don’t think I’ve yet been to a show like this (i.e., one with an impromptu car park made from a grass field) at which this kind of thing didn’t happen. Certainly Leonard’s 2009 Day On The Green concerts in the Hunter Valley and Bowral suffered from similar long and disorganised queues of cars trying getting back out. I don’t mean to say that things at Hanging Rock shouldn’t (or couldn’t) have been done better … just that in my experience the level of chaos was only ‘about typical.’ Actually, reading the reports of others I count myself lucky that it only took me about 90 minutes to move the 500m from my car park spot to the main road — others waited far longer.

Next Stop

Leonard and his band have only one more show in Australia: this Wednesday in Perth. As with Hanging Rock, I’ll be making a very brief trip to Perth on the day to witness the end of this amazing tour!

Looking forward to it …

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