As he'd firmly established himself as a poet and novelist years before he made his first album, Leonard Cohen is often regarded less as a musician than as a writer who happens to sing. But his songs have always displayed a subtle but mesmerizing melodic sense that dovetails gracefully with his lyrics, and though his craggy voice has its limits, no one else interprets Cohen's songs with his degree of intelligence and quiet passion. In 1979, after the release of his album Recent Songs, Cohen set out on an international concert tour accompanied by members of the jazz-rock group Passenger; Field Commander Cohen was compiled from recordings of the 1979 tour, and it presents an especially strong argument for Cohen's gifts as a musician. Cohen's voice had gained a great deal of strength and nuance since the dates preserved on 1973's Live Songs, and the smoky rasp that began to scar his vocals on I'm Your Man had yet to set in; this may well be Cohen's best set of recorded performances as a singer, and having Jennifer Warnes and Sharon Robinson on hand as duet partners is especially rich icing on the cake. While the musicians take care to never intrude upon the songs, they play beautifully, with remarkable taste and skill; Passenger bring out the nuances of these songs with a sure but gentle hand (especially bassist Roscoe Beck and Paul Ostermayer on sax and clarinet), and Raffi Hakopian's violin and John Bilezikjian's oud add breathtaking punctuation to these performances (Cohen often cites his musicians after the songs, and it's not hard to imagine a singer being thrilled to work with musicians of this caliber). While it falls short of the stark emotional force of Songs of Leonard Cohen or Songs of Love and Hate, Field Commander Cohen makes clear that Cohen writes songs, not literature accompanied by incidental music, and here these 12 songs possess a passionate, aching beauty that's a wonder to behold; this is easily the best Leonard Cohen live recording to emerge to date.
Field Commander Cohen: Tour of 1979 Review
by Mark Deming