Building Leonard Cohen's Backing Band

For 30 years now, Roscoe Beck has worked with Leonard Cohen.

It started when Beck was 24, and his Austin group, Passenger, got a call to play on Cohen's 1979 LP, Recent Songs, an album that marked a return to the Old World folk that gave Cohen's early records their intoxicating, moody elegance. Subsequently, Beck joined Cohen on his world tours in the '80s, and as a result of that work, he produced Jennifer Warnes' 1986 tribute album Famous Blue Raincoat, which helped Cohen's career out of a mid-decade lull.

And through all his work, Beck has been able to witness a large chunk of Cohen's work first-hand.

Beck hasn't, however, seen the level of ecstatic adoration that the Los Angeles-based songwriter/novelist/poet is receiving on this most recent tour.

"It seems very obvious to me [that] there's a much greater and much broader appreciation for him now than there's ever been," Beck says. "At 74 years old now, he's suddenly receiving all of the recognition, which hasn't always come his way. The man has had a career, with its peaks and valleys like anyone else's, but he's obviously made a real career out of this racket—and I think he would use that word."

Cohen's rarefied position as one of our greatest living pop songwriters compares only to Bob Dylan's. Like Dylan, Cohen's songs have often grown larger lives on the breath of other singers' sweeter, more polished voices. But unlike Dylan, who's been on his Never Ending Tour for the past two decades, Cohen hasn't toured the United States in more than 15 years. The 2005 music doc I'm Your Man—which featured performances from modern admirers Rufus Wainwright, Antony, Beth Orton, Jarvis Cocker, Nick Cave and U2—did much to articulate Cohen's influence and biography to a younger audience. Its full-length readings of late-career gems such as "Tower of Song" and "The Future" assisted in whetting new appetites for the retrospective concert Cohen's band has honed during 99 shows in Canada, Europe, Australia, New Zealand and one in New York City.

Though accolades have been pouring in about Cohen's onstage energy—his resonant, if deeper, baritone, how he uses his whole body to gesticulate his coveted lyrics—Cohen requires a remarkable band to land the ambitious three-hour set list.

In November 2007, he flew to Austin to ask Beck to be the music director for what is likely his last tour.

"Leonard's instructions to me were very simple," Beck recalls. "He said, 'I only want the best band on the road this year.' To which I replied, 'Great, no pressure.'"

After a series of auditions, Beck decided on a nine-piece backing group, featuring longtime Cohen collaborator and back-up singer Sharon Robinson, buzz-generating English duo The Webb Sisters (who sing lead on "If It Be Your Will" late in the set) and Spanish multi-instrumentalist Javier Mas (who plays the 12-string guitar and traditional Spanish instruments the bandurria, the laud and the archilaud during the course of the evening).

Beck, who has a strong background in jazz and blues, says that when it comes to interpreting Cohen's music, feeling is more important than chops.

"I think any musician playing his music would have to 'get it,'" he says. "We have great musicians, many of whom you could call virtuosos. But you don't really see a lot of virtuosity onstage because the music is not about that at all. It's really about capturing what Leonard wants to put across."

What Cohen conveys—a search for the divine, a respect for solitude, a warts-and-all interrogation of the self, a love of poetry—are values that are aren't exactly hallmarks of American pop culture. As Beck confirms, Cohen has always been more appreciated in Europe. But, despite extravagant ticket prices, several additional U.S. shows have been added due to popular demand. There is a palpable—and possibly unexpected—American hunger for Cohen's music and his message.

"Here is a man who some think of as a living legend at this point," Beck says. "Certainly he doesn't. He thinks of himself as a songwriter living in L.A."

 
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