IT’S ONE OF THE MORE SURREAL SCENES IN the live music spectrum: 20,000 fans are packed into New York’s Madison Square Garden for a late-winter Leonard Cohen concert, yet the arena is as hushed as a jazz club, as the crowd clings to Cohen’s every lamenting lyric. The setting also reveals his band’s depth and discernment, with not a wasted or throwaway note heard all evening long. Leading the ten-piece unit on Cohen’s 2013 Old Ideas world tour— which boasts such vets as keyboardist Neil Larsen, guitarist Mitch Watkins, and vocalist Sharon Robinson—is Roscoe Beck. While perhaps best known for backing guitar gods Robben Ford, Eric Johnson, Greg Koch, and Oz Noy, Beck has a producing and playing history that extends from his longtime work with Cohen to like-minded tunesmiths Jennifer Warnes, Joe Ely, Beth Nielsen Chapman, and the Dixie Chicks. Backstage, Roscoe reflected on his role for rock’s deep-voiced poet of pessimism and despair.
What are your responsibilities as Leonard’s musical director?
Upon getting the call in 2007 for my second stint as his musical director, my first responsibilities were to catalog the songs we were considering performing, and to help him audition and assemble the touring band. Once the band was in place, we began to assemble the arrangements, as a unit. Each member has contributed in that regard, and the arrangement work continues as the tour rolls along. Quite often a song we’ve been playing for years will suddenly undergo a key change or an entirely new treatment. Onstage, my job is something like a “stealth” conductor: The better I do it, the less one might notice it. I take verbal instructions or cues from Leonard and pass them along, as subtly as possible, to the rest of the band. I have to be on my toes at all times; anything is possible. For instance, Leonard might decide to wait until coming in with a verse if it feels like the organic thing to do. Arrangements are not set in stone; it’s very much a “heads up” gig.
How would you describe your role and your approach as the bassist?
My bass role is that of a musical leader, if you will, as almost all of the cues come through me. But musically, my approach is very simple. The bass parts must be reliable and leave space. With Leonard, it’s all about the lyrics and the vocal. If Leonard’s words aren’t heard, we’ve failed in our duty. It’s not a “player’s gig” per se, especially for the bassist. My job on bass is to remain disciplined, to remain appropriate and respectful to the music.
What’s the greatest challenge of the gig for you?
Remaining vigilant! No matter how many times we may have played a particular song, anything about that song could change, at any time—and probably will! Remaining focused and in the moment is always important, but on this gig, it is absolutely essential. Another challenge is singing background vocals. In the role of bassist I’m usually comfortable and confident, so onstage I often focus more on the challenge of my vocal parts, doing my best to ensure they’re in pitch and blending well. Overall, if my performance never stands out in a particularly obvious way, I’m probably doing my job well.
Roscoe Beck, Walk On [Waterloo, 2005]; Leonard Cohen, Old Ideas [BMG, 2012], Songs From the Road [Sony, 2010]; Garrett Lebeau, Rise to the Grind [Music Road, 2013]; Oz Noy, Twisted Blues,Vol. 1 [Abstract Logix, 2011]; Eric Johnson, Up Close [Capitol, 2010]
Basses Three Fender Roscoe Beck 5-strings (one fretless), early- 1900s Pfretschner German flatback; 1930s Schroetter German carved back
Strings Electric, La Bella Hard Rockin’ Steels; upright, Thomastik Weich
Rig Barbera Transducer Systems pickup (for upright), Fender Bassman 250 head, AxeTrak ATB 0001 isolation cabinet, Ultimate Ears UE18 in-ear monitors (in one ear only)
Effects TC Electronic 1210 Spatial Expander + Stereo Chorus/ Flanger, Lexicon MPX- 1 Stereo Processor (for reverb only), Radial JDI Passive Direct Box