The narrative behind Leonard Cohen’s appearance in the middle of the night at the tumultuous Isle of Wight Festival in 1970 is intriguing, but the DVD/CD of that performance stands out for another reason. Until now Cohen’s only officially released early live album, 1973’s Live Songs, featured a cover, an instrumental, a hotel room recording, and mostly lesser- known material. Many fans were left wanting more.
And—a few decades later—they got it. Isle of Wight delivers solid performances of such early classics as “Bird on the Wire,” “So Long, Marianne,” “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye,” “Suzanne” and “Famous Blue Raincoat.” On the DVD Cohen’s seven-piece group has the aura of a band of gypsies shipwrecked on an island, but musically the performance is as polished and restrained as on the studio albums, and the sound is similar, with guitars and vocals high in the mix and the other instruments well in the background. The biggest difference is Cohen. Compared to the studio versions of these songs—and, for that matter, most of his live performances—he sings with an urgency that makes this set not so much an exercise in nostalgia as the rediscovery of an artist often characterized for his reserve.