Live Songs, released in 1973, is a compilation of live performances in London & The Isle of Wight in 1970, and in Berlin, Brussels, London, Paris and a "room in Tennessee" in 1972. The stirring female backing vocals that characterize Cohen's best work are prominent throughout and come from Donna Washburn & Jennifer Warren on the 1972 tracks and from Aileen Fowler & Corlynn Hanney in 1970. The album is one of Cohen's early classics and should be part of every fan's collection.
The brief intro Minute Prologue & the songs Passing Thru, Please Don't Pass Me By & Queen Victoria are rare, if not unique to this album. It would be great if studio versions existed. The prologue expresses something quite meaningful for devoted fans, the yearning Passing Through ("glad that I ran into you") is tuneful and rhythmic, colored by scriptural imagery and a clever pun or two whilst the mystical masterpiece You Know Who I Am gets a delicate & reverential treatment.
Bird On A Wire has a brief spoken introduction in French, something about searching for freedom in the heart of the night, and the lyrics slightly stray from the original in a few places. The centerpiece of the album is the 14-minute long Please Don't Pass Me By (A Disgrace) with its spoken sections and harrowing, almost unbearably painful message. Some very perturbing truths about the human condition are conveyed in this anguished performance. Phew! A more digestible song in the same vein is The Captain on Various Positions.
The sensual track Tonight Will Be Fine is performed up-tempo with appealing fiddle and banjo. I think this more rhythmic version has an additional verse not found on the original from Songs from a Room. In his classical acoustic style Story of Isaac and Seems So Long Ago Nancy are tenderly interpreted and there is also a gentle acoustic instrumental titled Improvisation. Live Songs concludes with Queen Victoria that appears as a poem in his poetry books Flowers for Hitler of 1964 and Selected Poems 1956 - 1968 published in 1969.
These performances have a quality, subtle or raw, that re-interprets the familiar songs in a different light; a side of early Cohen that fans will miss out on if they don't own this album. This rawness of e.g. Please Don't Pass Me By later manifested on the Phil Spector-produced Death of a Ladies' Man to the consternation of many of Cohen's fans, but it was always a part of his musical make-up, as demonstrate here. Live Songs is an exceptional album of great splendor and power, an essential recording in Leonard Cohen's work.