Sunday, July 28, 2013

Happy 6th Anniversary, FBC!

And just like this, with this 556th post, FBC! just turned 6. Dang, it's high time we start elementary school now.
I hadn't realized we had reached this milestone yesterday, and had no intention of posting anything whatsoever this weekend, but there we are.  Normally the idea was to post a review of Tosh Berman's book Sparks-tastic! as the newest post when I'd finally gotten around to write it, well that will have to be next time.

So what are we up today? Not cake, but just a very brief mention of a visit I paid with my friend Nancy to the M-HKA in Antwerp, a museum of contemporary art I used to visit as a kid.
I remembered it then as rather leaning toward conceptual art, and heavy with Belgian artists, though I had no recollection of visiting permanent exhibits, mostly thematic group shows.  It's a short hop from Antwerp's Central Station, one of the most magnificent train station this side of LA's Union Station. If you get on the #12 tram, it's a quick trip  to the museum. Antwerp is a delightful city, in passing, maybe less pretty than Bruges, but more agreeable to visit.
 The museum itself is located in an unremarkable yet very pleasant building, not too big,  and I insist on mentioning the two adorable ladies manning the front desk, who where professional and courteous but mostly very sweet. If someone from the museum sees this, it was on Wednesday afternoon and these ladies deserve all the praise we can lavish on them.

The museum is currently showing its collection, which is very 1990s-oriented, and of course has lots of Belgian artists represented. We saw a really great Cameron Jamie installation (complete with a separate entrance accessible to disabled people, super classy), a sprawling installation by David Blair about a Mandchurian film production company that may or may not have existed, a Mark Dion sculpture,  about extinct birds, a James Turrell on the rooftop that is your standard James Turrell sky cut-out but that was remarkable because somehow someone had stuck a bit of tape in one of the top corner...
 I don't know if it's an accident or an act of vandalism or a prank, but  if you put a former museum professional like me  in an exhibition space I  will notice stuff like this (or wall labels that come unglued, walls that should be painted, dusty radiator covers... you name it). I found it really funny but of course that was the *only* thing I ended up obsessing about the Turrell...

Two artworks really stood out for me: a semi-circular and spectacular Craigie Horsfield photograph of the bay of Naples with what looks like fireworks. I snatched the picture off the museum's website, so all credits are  Craigie Horsfield and MHKA.  The work is really striking in person, but it was also interesting to me because I hadn't seen Horsfield's work since the mid-1990s and I had somehow forgotten all about it. I mostly remembered somber photographs of working-class people in Poland, where Horsfield lived at the time, before the end of the Cold War, and these photograph for some reason always seemed like a modern analog of Van Gogh's Potato Eaters to me.

The other was a small work that looked like documentation from various performances by the Belgian artist Ria Pacquée whose work I had never seen before nor heard about, and it's a shame because I fell in love with it then and there.
I now feel like someone (say, me, but if it's not me, whoever does that will do a public service) should bring it to the US. It reminded me a bit of Michel Journiac and also Tracey Emin, if Emin had done her work 10 years before and it had actually been not so much about her ago but about a common,  universal experience for a woman, whether she's an artist or not. Ria Pacquée lives in Antwerp and apparently has had some survey show  recently at a Brussels art space devoted to video and film called Argos. I'm looking forward to exploring her work further and hopefully bring it to the United States if I can.

Ria Paquée, documentation of performances 1982-1988, 1989. Photograph Ria Pacquée and MHKA Antwerp.

With this, I'm going to celebrate FBC!'s 6 years with a drink tonight. Have a drink for us as well if you feel like it!

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Links, Tidbits, Morsels & Small Pieces

Jennifer Moon, Prison Relic #2: Typewriter, 2012, Framed photograph, book, cardboard shelf, chain, 50 in. x 20 in. x 9 in.

We don't do Tumblr, Instagram and other stuff like that at FBC! because it's full-time work that doesn't pay the bills if you join all those newfangled things on the internet. But once in a while there are some pieces and tidbits of news I want to lump together in a post, so here are a few things below.

I've just been made aware of this very long post about drugs, sexism, making a living etc. in the music world/industry. Lots of very interesting issues being raised.  Thanks to Fishrider Records in New Zealand for bringing my attention to it. I sometimes want to write a post about sexism in the creative industries but I often get discouraged because the problem is so huge.
It's not confined to the music world, as the art world and the literary world are rife with it as well.  Seriously, one female friend here in Belgium has been told by a local art world big shot "oh you know this is a very masculine milieu" implying she could forget about ever getting a job here. But I'm being heartened when I see male writers, musicians, artists, architects, etc. being supportive of feminist causes. A big thank you to them, there's a flicker of progress.

There's a King Krule LP coming out very soon. I've liked a lot what I've heard from him so far, so I'm eagerly awaiting the release. Now I was aware the kid was young, but Holy Mother of Belphégor! He's just 18.  There's an interview here, where you can spot pictures of him looking like he's in fact 14, and coming straight out of a "street urchin photorealist newsreel" of the 1930s. I wish him a long, happy, productive musical life away from self-destruction and things like that, that boy has too much talent. Sounds like he could have an interesting side career as a producer, too.

Congratulations to the happy recipients of the 2013 CCF grants, several of them being dear, dear friends of mine. Kudos Jennifer Moon, Vishal Jugdeo and Peter Wu, and also Rebecca Morris and Ruben Ochoa. Peter Wu would be my designer of choice if I can secure the funding for my Mike Kelley book, so I'm mightily pleased for him!

Still some musical news, this contemporary classical music festival is happening near London very soon. Top-notch bill, if I lived in the UK I'd go attend it for the entire duration.

Lastly, many music sites and magazines are publishing their "best albums of 2013 so far". Summer, slow news.

I'm not sure they were all issued in 2013, but my list is:
Parquet Courts
David Bowie
Rachel Zeffira
Petula Clark (she has an album of cover out that *nobody* but me seems to like)
British Sea Power
Puppet Rebellion (they released a free 3-songs EP so far)
The Pastels.

I haven't heard the Boards of Canada yet. Also I like a lot Baltic Fleet but I have no idea when their music was released (I do not own it in physical form yet, I'm too broke).

Stuff that I found was a dreadful piece of shit: Kanye West.
Been told by someone I highly esteem (hi, John!) that it was "sonically innovative", er sorry, Scott Walker > Kanye West.
Plus Kanye's lyrics are the shittiest I've heard this side of Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep and that's a record.
While I'm at it:
Scott Walker > Matmos > The Knife.
Stuff I was told was good but I find super weak: These New Puritans.

Missed opportunities: Scott Walker, The Collection, a reissue of his 5 first solo albums that includes 'Til The Band Comes In.
 If you don't own any classic Scott Walker yet, for once I recommend you buy the CD boxset and NOT the vinyl one, as it is much cheaper.

The vinyl boxset was announced back in April as containing original mono mixes, an mp3 download card (which I like to have when I fork over the money for a vinyl because it's a back-up), etc.
 So I blindly preordered it as my birthday present to myself because one can never have too much Scott Walker original music in their life, ever.
Instead, it's all stereo mixes, no mp3 card, the vinyl sleeves came up with split seams inside the shrink-wrapped records, which for something brand new screams the absence of a quality control department. There's a photograph of Scott Walker in one of the record, which I don't really care about because I don't see the point, but if you gonna put in some extras, please print the pictures from an original negative or 4" x 5", because poorly printed scan photographs sucks and look cheap.
There are no extras like B-Sides from singles, which  don't really mind myself but I saw some record collectors bemoan the fact on specialized websites.
I'm glad some of my money will translate into royalties for Scott Walker so he can continue making his current innovative music, but I'd rather have invested in a good quality box set. Like the Beach Boys Smile one that came out about 2 years ago and was much more fun and interesting for about the same price.

 This boxset has been issued by Universal, not a small label without much capital and manpower.  I'm raising the point here because they just announced yesterday they were launching a crowdfunding site to reissue vinyl.
Gimme me a fucking break, Universal, if this is the piss-poor job you do with your own capital, I'm never going to blindly trust you again to reissue records. I'm all for supporting artists and paying for the music, in hard copies not only because they get more money from them than from mp3 and streaming (especially streaming), but  also because they're more archival. I
f you exploit the consumer like this, Universal, I'd rather spend my money on smaller labels and smaller acts than, er, future reissues of Pulp, Nirvana or Sonic Youth. All stuff that is super easy to find used!

Friday, July 12, 2013

How Curating Got A Bad Name, Or How To Ruin An Artist Retrospective: The Pompidou's Spectacular Failures

Mike Kelley,  Ahh... Youth, 1991 (otherwise known as "the cover of Sonic Youth's Dirty")

The Pompidou Center has a long history of curatorial mismanagement, not so much that it has succumbed to celebrity culture the way US art museums are doing right now, but for lack of true scholarly rigor and international vision.
It got a rather late start in 1977 when it opened, compared to most big capitals - though Brussels is lacking a modern and contemporary museum right now - and from the beginning was committed to either showcasing French artists (it opened with a Marcel Duchamp retrospective) which is fair enough as most national museums do represent their country after all; or organizing sprawling, messy  mammoth exhibitions centered around a locale that has been a hotbed of artistic innovations (Vienna, Berlin, Moscow, Los Angeles, etc.) or  on some über-vague thematic idea, like "Time" or "Political Art".

The latter type of exhibition was always too complicated and usually crammed to the rafters with objects that were easily missed (I remember marveling at seeing a Copernicus manuscript in 'Le Temps, Vite' that was exiled away in a small vitrine that everybody overlooked, as it wasn't signaled in an obvious manner). The exhibition design or "scénographie' as they like to grandiosely call it in French would usually be so clever you wouldn't understand exactly the subdivisions, the layout and the relationships between concepts and objects*.
The Pompidou catalogs also tend to be stubbornly published in French-only, which can be a saving grace for foreign visitors because they can't wince when they see mistranslations (for example, an article in the Warhol retrospective catalog back in 1990 had "viscous" instead of "vicious" when referring to a Lou Reed lyric, which kinda change things, especially if it's the heading of an article) or wonder at the generally poor proofreading.

 Full disclosure, I worked there as a lowly curatorial assistant back at the end of the last century, and I witnessed piss-poor planning, general chaos, temper tantrums, or important tasks being given over to unpaid interns or temp workers whose contract were renewed (or not) every 2 months or so.
The main reason for this is linked to arcane budgetary rules arbitrated by the French Ministry of Finances and trickling down to cultural institutions,  but you can also blame a very French attitude when it comes to work ethics, a mix of overconfidence in being able to pull things off at the last minute and a blind belief in nationalistic clout.
Ah yes, if you ask MoMA for a loan 2 months before your show opens, of course you gonna get it. Ah yes, Guernica will be lent to my show because of course, I work at the Pompidou, that flagship of French male chauvinism, the centerpiece of French high culture. Ah yes, my group show with a complicated if ill-defined subject will look fantastic because I started working on it only a year prior to the opening and I'll be able to convince the Tate Modern, the Hermitage, MoMa and other large museums to lend me over their foot traffic-attracting masterpieces, never mind we always refuse them our own show-stopping artworks .  You get the drift.

As a rule, the Pompidou shows don't really travel that much internationally, but the Pompidou does "take shows", as we say in the profession, that is hosts an exhibition curated elsewhere by somebody else, usually some retrospective.
 "Take shows" are a good way to split expenses in Europe (in the US it's different, the show travels for a fee on top of the expenses), and everywhere they serve the purpose of saving an institution some resources (say, you have a reduced staff that cannot spend too long on research, or your museum isn't very well-known or has a small collection to leverage so it wouldn't get the loans needed for the exhibition to be as complete as possible) and in some instances they can fill a gap in scheduling (which happens a lot, when you need to postpone an exhibition to raise more money or wait for loans to get back from elsewhere).

Mike Kelley, a detail from one of the Memory Ware pieces.

As you may know if you follow FBC! the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam organized a Mike Kelley retrospective that opened back in December. That exhibition was planned long in advance, when Kelley was still alive, and will travel to MoMA PS1 in September, and then to MOCA in Los Angeles next year.
But before that, a considerably reduced and incredibly poorly installed version stopped at the Pompidou for the Summer.
Being a Mike Kelley scholar, even though nobody seems to know it (I wrote my dissertation on Kelley and got the Ph.D back in 2003), I thought I should do a quick day trip to Paris to go see the exhibition, if only because I'm planning to write a book on his work, so it's always good to see the work again in person.
Of course I'm incredibly biased because in my opinion (which seemed to be shared by a bunch of other critics and scholars and writers, so I'm not being quixotic here) Kelley is one of the most influential artists of the last 30 years or so.
 Having stated this, you can understand I was expecting his retrospective in its Pompidou incarnation to be quite substantial, on the same scale as it was in Amsterdam, maybe with the addition of local loans (Kelley is well represented in François Pinault's collection, for example). So imagine my disappointment when I arrived at the Pompidou to see that the show wasn't even announced on a banner hanging from the museum's façade. They had one each for Roy Lichtenstein and  Simon Hantaï, a French-based Postwar abstract painter,  both being given the top floor, the most prestigious real estate at the Pompidou, and one other banner for the permanent collection. I'll get back to that a bit later.

Kelley's retrospective is located in one of the mezzanine galleries on the right hand side of the building when you come in, and to add insult to injury there is a crapstatic show of younger artists in the other, because nobody at the Pompidou thought that devoting more space to Kelley's work would have been a smarter option.
From then on there was no way this could have ended well, and to confirm my suspicions the show starts on the wrong footing with a didactic proudly announcing that "this is the first Mike Kelley retrospective in France" which is patently untrue as a traveling one organized by Thomas Kellein stopped in Bordeaux in 1992. You can find the reference on Kelley's website, and it's listed in most of his bios, so it's not exactly a secret. I guess people at the Pompidou must think that if it didn't happen in Paris, then it never happened, right?

Unlike in Amsterdam, the exhibition starts chronologically with a few birdhouses from his CalArts MFA show in 1978, then jumps up to some "performance-related objects" and after that it's complete chaos. One slanted wall brings you to 2-dimensional works from Plato's Cave, Rothko's Chapel, Lincoln's Profile (1986) and right behind that wall you then get to a few sculptures and hologram videos from the Kandors (so that would chronologically be the end).
The most real estate is taken up by The Poetics Project, an installation made in collaboration with Tony Oursler for the 1997 Documenta and acquired by the Pompidou. By far not a very significant piece for both artists despite its sprawling footprint, but interesting as a transitional piece for Kelley. It's normal for a museum to showcase its collection so no beef from my part here, but it means that within such a small gallery space a lot more interesting or important pieces are missing, that could have given a much better idea of Kelley's work to the public. Oh but who am I kidding here, there's absolutely no way a visitor could get a good idea of his importance and influence with such a crappy installation.

Behind the Poetics Project, on one side you have a couple of Memory Ware 2-D pieces (an accumulation of buttons, pins, beads and shiny objects glued on a flat panel that command huge prices from unenlightened collectors, a bit of in-your-face-fuck-you from Kelley to the market, if you will, most of them from 2000-onward), one blobby sculpture called Cuttlebone I won't discuss here for lack of time but that is interesting for many reasons (if you want to know why, wait for me to write that book).
On the other side, a few stuffed animal pieces, not too many nor very significant ones, maybe because these are the kind of pieces the curator thought were the most well-known, so no need to show the seminal ones, right?
There are some very minor paper pieces scattered here and there and in the last room you have stuff thrown together for no other reason, seemingly, that the curator had no fucking idea what to do with them.
There's the magnificent Educational Complex maquette (1995) that shares some space with one of the sculpture from Day Is Done, one projection of the Heidi video on a wall, and a couple other videos elsewhere. You get the feeling that someone thought, "oh I'm gonna put all the videos in the same space, because it's the same medium, it must mean something, right? Oh and the maquette and the Day Is Done sculpture are loosely linked with memory and education, let me put this here" while there are 2 panels from Sex To Sexty on another wall.

Mike Kelley and Tony Oursler, detail from the Poetics Project, 1997 (an interview between John Cale and Tony Oursler)

This is what I'd call "curating by Wikipedia", taking a few pieces from various periods of Kelley's art career without carefully selecting them, throwing them in a space and not bothering to rigorously link them to explain a bit why they are significant, why they are displayed here in relation to what, etc.
The wall labels and didactics are particularly idiotic in that regard. They wallow in a succession of empty adjectives (he went to the "famous" Cal Arts school,  "from the "astonishing richness of his works on paper" to "his "spectacular mixed-medias works", his "erudite work tinged with irreverence" is laid out in a "striking" visual & sonic path", and OF COURSE it's an "acidic  critical commentary on art and society").
 This may very well be but at no point during the show do any of the didactics explains how Kelley arrives at that. Unlike in Amsterdam, where all the wall labels and didactics were extremely well-written and informative, and where connections between artworks were explained clearly.

I left the show so pissed off by its poor organization, installation and educational components that I didn't even bother to buy the catalog, which I would have normally done to expand my collection of Kelley-related books, and I'm glad I'm didn't because I've been told yesterday by someone who will remain anonymous (because I'm not sure the person would want to be quoted) that a massive catalog produced by the Stedelijk will come out at the end of the Summer just on time for when the show arrives at PS1. Now I recommend you buy that one. Apparently the Pompidou went rogue and decided to publish its own catalog, why I wonder because it could have spared the funds to maybe, maybe expand the exhibition as it stands and make it, oh, I don't know, scholarly? Educational? Intelligent? The Pompidou isn't a contemporary art center destined to be a cutting-edge destination for the happy few, but a national museum that attracts a large international audience that could have benefited from 1) learning more about Mike Kelley, 2) be informed why he was such an influential artist over the last few decades 3) in a way that makes sense for a virgin audience 4) so they'd see his work within a larger art historical context.
Instead, they decided to cut the size of the show in such a way it's incomprehensible for the large majority of the (paying) public, giving it a vague air of hipsterism by locating it right next to a show of inane young artists.
Well done, Pompidou Center powers that be, here's a totally wasted opportunity to do your job.

Mike Kelley and Paul McCarthy, video from the Heidi installation, 1992, (Timothy Martin interviewing Peter and asking him, "do you know what masturbation is?)

What the Pompidou has done instead was welcoming the public to a totally imbecilic work by Loris Gréaud in the center of the foyer, where some stuntman was jumping out of some spiraling tower onto a large inflatable cushion. BIG DEAL. Oh, performance art, you've come such a long way. Not.
Then if you were so inclined you could have gone to the Simon Hantaï retrospective on the top floor, the one reserved for, you know, the masters. There was also a Lichtenstein one I skipped for lack of time, and that might have redeemed my whole Pompidou experience except I've been told by several people who've seen it that the curatorial choices were odd and that, too, was curiously installed. Oh well. Anyway, I chose poorly because that Hantaï retrospective demonstrated in the most clear-cut way possible that the poor schmuck took twenty years churning out crapstatic paintings (you know the kind: brown, brown and brown muddy brown painterly ones with an occasional maroon highlights or two), all 400 of them,  before he eventually arrived at something half-decent. Which are tie-dye origami-like jobs being unfolded, mostly in blue, but you also have some yellow ones. If you see just one of these it's actually enjoyable, if you see several together they make you realize what a mediocre painter he was, someone who actually never influenced anybody at all in his entire life. 

Why am I hating on Simon Hantaï, will you ask? Well I have nothing against the poor schlemiel, besides I think he's dead. Rather, I am hating on the Pompidou right now. The Hantaï retrospective could have easily be swapped with the Mike Kelley one in terms of real estate and not suffered from it, on the contrary,  editing out the brown sauce paintings by a few hundreds would have been very smart to avoid de-evaluating the work of an artist I was fairly neutral about before.
But now I know, Hantaï has never been a good artist, period. Not worth devoting that many resources for. So why did the Pompidou decide to spend its public funds on someone nobody will ever wake up thinking about, "this artist changed my life and the course of Postwar painting!"?

 Because he was quasi-French for fuck sake! Let's show the world the French had great Postwar artists! You see, when you learn art history in France, you are taught that the great drama of Modern and Contemporary Art was when Rauschenberg was awarded the Golden Lion at the Venice Biennial in 1964, thereby ending France worldwide domination in modern painting (and art, then). It came two years after the definitive loss of the French colonies, so you can imagine the trauma.
The French art world, which is managed and dominated by mostly male and mostly white civil servants, never recovered from that loss. Ever since, they lament the lack of French artists in the collection of major international museums (read "American", I rarely see a French apparatchik bemoaning the absence of French crappy painters in the collections of, say, the Tate Modern or the Moderna Museet in Stockholm), and every decade or so they spend a big chunk of French public money to organize a showcase of French artists in the United States. That's when my US friends usually come to me and ask, how come there isn't good contemporary art in France? The answer, my friends, is blowing in the wind alongside French pop music's international hits.

Last night as I was discussing how terrible a painter Hantaï was, a French friend joked and said, "oh but you see, I was brought up in the cult of  Maria Helena Vieira da Silva, so Hantaï is actually a spot above". While not being totally untrue, I was, yes, but this summer the Pompidou doesn't devote any single solo show to a woman artist. None. So crappy painter for crappy painter, if they really want to make a point of showing off terrible Postwar abstract painting by foreign artists who were living in France, then why the hell not show Vieira da Silva? Seriously, if the Pompidou wants to spend money on artists who lived in France but are not well-know internationally, then I propose they should explore the work of Lea Lublin, who did really interesting work in the 1970s and would likely interest people abroad.
There's a whole side discussion to be done about the current sexist and racist cultural politics of the French (and European) art world, because they're terribly backwards here, but then when you see how they organized all their exhibitions at the Pompidou this summer you begin to understand it's a symptom of a much larger problem, mainly a lack of curatorial vision, self-reflection and stringent intellectual standards.

If you wonder where curating got its bad name to be used by all and sundry in the fashion industry, music blogs, novelty stores and lifestyle magazines, look no further than the cultural institutions that lose their sense of purpose and meaning to abandon all pretense of educational or scholarly goals.
The Pompidou is a shining example of that, even without organizing a TV reality show featuring a threesome between Marina Abramovic, James Franco and Jay-Z.
Just by selecting where to display which artist within the premises of the museum and how to give up on all pretense of intellectual organization within the Kelley retrospective, the museum let all its standards slip, and by doing so not only it let down the spiritual and historical legacy of a great artist, but its audience as well.

UPDATE: I've been told yesterday there was a banner indeed for Mike Kelley. But not on the facade where the main entrance is located, but on the back of the building where there is no visitors entrance (there's one for the library, if I remember well). Still looks like an afterthought to me and it doesn't make the exhibition better or more respectful of the artist, the public and the institution.

*The one notable exception I can think of, on the top of my head, was the rather wonderful Let's Entertain around 2000. It was so incredibly well-installed with very good wall labels and didactics. It was curated by Philippe Vergne and came from the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis where he was working at the time. 

Monday, July 1, 2013

Leonard Cohen At Forest National, Brussels, June 30, 2013

My former Famous Neighbor™ played at Forest National in Brussels last night. For those of you who don't know me in real life, I used to live right around the corner from Mr. Cohen when I lived in Los Angeles. I saw him frequently when I was driving around, but I never worked the nerve to say hello, even though he seemed quite friendly and neighborly.
 I grew up listening to his music, and I continued listening to it pretty much all my life, but I'm not a super big fan of his the way I adore John Cale and Scott Walker, mainly because Cohen is primarily a great lyricist* but his music is rather conventional. Nevertheless I like it enough that I was thrilled to be able to see him play in Brussels yesterday, as I had missed his two previous gigs in LA when I was living there.

The venue, Forest National, was sold out, at its maximum capacity of 7,000 people. It is by far once of the crappiest concert venue I have ever attended, very poorly designed and obviously aging.
I had one of the second-cheapest tickets, at 66 euros, meaning I was seating in the Gods, high, high up, but given how the space is designed I'm not sure people who bought premium tickets and were seated on the floor had a much better viewing situation.
 In passing, it struck me how easy it would be to fall from the Gods several stories below onto the floor, as the rail was rather low and also too wide, so anybody taking a tumble from the stairs could end up meeting their maker much faster than anticipated. You don't want to bring young children there.
So, as far as safety concerns go, that venue is a bit worrisome, in addition to suffering from very poor ventilation (obviously no AC) and don't expect any type of comfort in the plastic bucket seats that make up all the rows in the bleachers. Nor did the folding chairs they used for premium ticket holders look much more comfortable. One good point was that the sound was really good, a crystal clear mix that really did justice to the music.

The audience was a good mix of several generations from boomers to their grandchildren, and evenly divided between Dutch and French speakers**, as far as I could tell, and it seems to me more of the younger people attending were Dutch-speaking. Everybody seemed determined to have a good time, so Cohen and his band didn't have to work very hard to win them over, but I wish the audience had renounced that silly habit of clapping their hands during the songs, if only because they didn't seem to be able to follow the beat (and they were clapping effing too loud).

The band is rather large, made up of excellent musicians playing everything from the Hammond organ to double bass to violin, acoustic and electric guitar, plus three very good back-up singers. The bass player was very good, for example, the only musician I found just meh was the drummer, but that's because I'm used to seeing fantastic ones like Michael Jerome Moore (who used to play for John Cale, and now mostly plays with Richard Thompson and Michelle Ndgeocello).
The musicians came from all over the world, giving a gipsy-world music vibe to the music. It worked very well for some songs, especially compared to the horrid synths arrangements Cohen used to saddle his 1990s songs with, so The Future sounded extraordinarily good like this. For other songs it didn't work that well, and it would have been nice to have more stripped-down music and intimate feelings sometimes, as all songs ended up sounding like the same blur of bluesy guitar riffs mixed with gipsy violins.
Cohen visibly had tons of fun, making some really hilarious jokes sometimes ("thank you for coming and climbing so high to see me... [gesturing to the rafters]... and for paying so dearly for the privilege"), showing off his "old age" by letting the presets of his little synthesizer play off a silly beat, and sometimes doing a mix between scatting and belching during his musicians solos (on The Darkness).
He played pretty much all of his greatest hits, with Susan, Sisters of Mercy, Tower of Songs, I'm our Man, Bird On A Wire, etc... and surprising me with Hallelujah, because he had declared somewhere there should be a moratorium on playing it and I agree. This is one song where his too big band came in the way of the music, I felt, but on another hand it stripped it from the danger of over-emoting on it like most TV contestants do on talent shows.

Cohen speaks a very good French, what with hailing from Montreal and having children who grew up in France, so he addressed the crowd and sang two songs in my native language, The Partisan (a song from the French resistance that used to make me cry when I was a child) and more surprisingly for me, a classic Québécois song called La Manic. My late father used to sing it very badly during his short-lived hippie phase when I was a child, and it's a song I'd expect to be very obscure outside of French Canada, so hearing it last night was a bit emotional for me. It's a song about blue-collar workers being away from their loved ones while building a dam in the North of the country and being bored to death after their shift, writing love letters to their wives and girlfriends who stayed behind at home. A proletarian love song, so to speak, something that has disappeared from Pop culture as surely has blue collar jobs have vanished from the Western world.

Cohen still has enough energy to sing for 2h30 straight (well there's a 15 minutes intermission in the middle), doing a lot of his singing on his knees, and spending lots of time letting his musicians do solos of the kind that is so good it doesn't feel like showboating. He introduced his musicians by name at least 3 times, then once named every single tech working for him. Nice gesture, that. A funny thing to watch was that each stage hand/tech was wearing a little hat like he does (and I can tell you he wears his suit and his hat all the time, as I saw him in LA in 90ºF heat).
 Also from my very high vantage point I could see there was a huge badass clock firmly planted on Cohen's monitor, so he know when to stop for the intermission, when to end the concert, etc. I found that detail very funny.

Overall it was a very good gig, and I'm glad I went, but I didn't have the transcendental experience everybody seems to be describing after going to a Leonard Cohen concert. In the same scale in terms of big crowds and big names, I can say I had a greater, warmer experience seeing Patti Smith (at the Wiltern in LA)  or Prince (at the Forum in LA)  play, and with lesser-known musicians, Sparks at Royce Hall and John Cale at the same venue were much more rewarding as far as the emotional content went. It's hard to pinpoint why, maybe the venue was not really adapted (people seated and clapping in their hands isn't as much fun as standing up and dancing), though Cohen and his band were warm enough to erase the corporate feel of the place. I'm glad Cohen is still touring and playing and making records, and I'm glad my ticket went toward contributing to his old age pension and his children trust fund, but I think in the future I'll stick with buying his records. On vinyl, of course.

* It struck me again last night how lyrics generally don't really work as poetry outside of music, as Cohen did a little spoken words moment that fell a bit flat to my ears, as the rhyming was a bit too contrived. It would have worked better with music.
**Many of my US friends are always surprised to know that in Belgium, you have Dutch and French speakers living in the same country. In Brussels most everything is bilingual, in the rest of the country it depends on whether you're in Flanders or Wallonia. There's also a German-speaking minority, plus a gaggle of other languages spoken by foreign immigrants. So now you know.