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. "Leonard Cohen Live at the Isle of Wight 1970"

Back in 1970... a musical event... outdoors on East Afton Farm, Freshwater, Isle of Wight, England. It was the third and final festival to be held on the island and it made musical history.

It was an August night. Jimi Hendrix was burned out and had delivered what is considered the worst performance of his career. This possibly had something to do with the crowd discontent. They expected better and were of a mood to complain. The feeling roused the crowd to ugly, unruly behavior and the possibility of a riot was inescapable. It was dark, around 2 AM when Hendrix left the stage for Leonard Cohen to take the festival out.

Watching were preceding performers Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Bob Johnston and Kris Kristofferson. Watching and filming was musical documentarian Murray Lerner and crew. They got shots of the crowd, of Baez holding forth on peace in her no-nonsense articulate way. Cohen was being awakened in his trailer. An intentional fire broke out on stage.

Camera and mikes went to Kristofferson who breathlessly describes the effect Leonard Cohen was having on the crowd. He says something like, "the guy comes out in his pajamas..." But Cohen, as he and his band gathered on stage, wasn't wearing pj's. It was a quite respectable safari outfit. Not bad, for the occasion.

Cohen, unable to see his audience beyond the ring of rows illuminated by the stage lights, knew there was a vast field of people beyond that penumbra, but it was all darkness. He told a story about "diamonds in the mine" in which people lit matches and asked all who had a match to do the same. He wanted to scope out how many listeners were still in attendance and how many were still there after the official high point of 600,000. By now, those who hung in until the last note was plucked were exhausted, physically and in their store of possessions, so the match lights were sparse. Cohen remained composed. The farm field was silent. The air was crisp.

It might have been the match light act that calmed the growling beast out there. Kristofferson spoke of his amazement at the transformation in the tone and temper the place had just gone through. Judy Collins was stunned, as well. And Cohen began to sing. "Famous Blue Raincoat." His calm, assured, rich baritone, filled the night as though it was a perfectly logical time to be singing. In his typical way, he enunciated every word like he was counting treasure. His single-minded purpose to present his imagery, his poetry, his beat, made the 35-year old music poet charismatic.

By the end of that first song, the audience was hanging on the singer's every word. Slow mood pieces followed until he came to "Tonight Will Be Fine," which was not written for this moment as the title might suggest, but as the most upbeat of his offerings, the level of energy and joyousness of this happy song stirred up the joint and it was clear the singer had turned the audience into believers. They were locked in his hands.

He goes on to sing two of his signature songs, the magical "Bird on a Wire," which raises an appreciative stir and indicates there were some Cohen fans out there; and then "Suzanne," a hymn to a woman that's close to sacred and second only to his "Hallelujah," a song I compare to "Amazing Grace" in its power to suggest the eternal.

Filmmaker Lerner's presence was no afterthought. From the footage he gleaned at Wight that year he has already produced and released "Jimi Hendrix at the Isle of Wight (1991)," "Message to Love: The Isle of Wight Festival" (1997) and "Listening to You: The Who at the Isle of Wight (1970)." Four docs and counting."

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The Blu-ray Edition
The Who - Live at the Isle of Wight Festival 1970 - DVD
Message to Love - The Isle of Wight Festival - DVD
Live In London (2009) - DVD
The Soundtrack

Hendrix died the month after the Festival. Cohen's future played out vastly differently. Even after the spotlight on folk music faded and left its living songwriters and troubadours in the commercial shadows, Cohen put out album after album, apparently supported by the loyalty of fans he amassed for his gentle dynamic of creativity.

Film homage came in 2005 in the form of "I'm Your Man," a documentary with Bono, Kate and Anna McGarrigle, Beth Orton and other distinguished artists who talk of the 70-year old visionary's influence on their music. In 2009 Cohen wrote the soundtrack song "First We Take Manhattan" for the film, "Watchmen," which also features "Hallelujah," and he appears in performance in "Leonard Cohen: Live in London," aired on PBS.

By now, this master of song is a legend -- a still living one. Which makes this capture of a night 39 years ago when the effect of his music jolted worldwide attention in an historic moment in musical drama so invaluable.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Leonard Cohen and his band.
Holding forth at the Isle of Wight Musical Festival on a groundbreaking night in 1970.

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