23 October 2009

Sincerely, L. Cohen

We're so lucky to be alive at the same time Leonard Cohen is.
- Lou Reed inducting Leonard Cohen into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 2008

Another night, another capacity crowd, another standing ovation as the old man takes the stage. He humbly thanks the audience and then it begins:

Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin
Dance me through the panic til Im gathered safely in
Lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove
Dance me to the end of love...

The same song with which he began his shows the last time he toured - 15 years ago. His voice is rough and weathered and deep, and it fills the theater. After the ovation for the song, he removes his hat, holds it over his heart, and thanks the audience, telling them that "I don't know when we might pass this way again, but tonight we are going to give you everything we have." And for the next three and a half hours, that is what he and his compatriots did, giving the audience a 25 song overview of a career which has lasted more than 50 years (his first book of poetry was published in 1956). There were songs from every period; the setlist drew the most from 1988's "I'm Your Man" - featuring 6 songs from that album - but the material ranged from "Suzanne" and "Sisters of Mercy" right up to the sublime "In My Secret Life." All of this performed with a virtuoso band and vocal support from his long-time collaborator Sharon Robinson along with Hattie and Charley, the Webb sisters.

The high point of the show for many (I'm sure) was "Hallelujah" - perhaps Cohen's best-known song these days. And it was a stirring performance - reminding the audience that, while Jeff Buckley and Rufus Wainwright may have popularized it, Cohen owns this song and no one - no one - will ever sing it like he does. It was a great moment to be sure - but for me, the second encore (there were three) was the highlight with a sparse performance of "Famous Blue Raincoat," followed by "If It Be Your Will." The latter opened with a recitation by Cohen after which the Webb sisters sang the rest of the song.

So - the three hours plus was a gift from this great artist - poet, novelist, songwriter, Zen monk, performer, mystic - to the audience. It is likely that most of us will never again have the opportunity to see this music performed live: Cohen is 75 and one has to wonder if he will be able to mount an effort like this again. Sooner or later, the song will prove prophetic:

If it be your will
That I speak no more
And my voice be still
As it was before
I will speak no more
I shall abide until
I am spoken for
If it be your will

We are indeed fortunate to have Leonard Cohen: I have never seen a performer with such dignity, class, and humility, and genuine love for his audience. This was the concert experience of a lifetime for me and I will treasure the memory.

Photo credit: Robb Cohen