Something seems to have gone wrong in the aging process; by all rights, Leonard Cohen should be a sorrowful and feeble man. Weighing in at 74 years and 11 studio albums, this evening at Seattle’s Wamu Theater Cohen was more gracious and energetic than most performers a third his age. Unlike near-contemporaries Bob Dylan and Neil Young, he has not aged into a curmudgeon or a reactionary; you may say he’s grown bitter, but you’d be wrong. Instead, the evening was a celebration, even in the darkest moments of Cohen’s catalog of song.
The show began promptly at 8 pm. There was no opening act. The band, all dressed in debonair suits and hats – even the stage crew was similarly attired – quickly took their places, followed by the man himself, dapper and smiling at the instant standing ovation. From the opening number “Dance Me to the End of Love,” Cohen moved gracefully about the stage, often kneeling by his monitors with a precision that indicted theatricality rather than weariness, frequently cupping the side of his face with his free hand. His voice, graveled as a dirt road, is nothing short of miraculous; it sounds unchanged from the deep baritone he assumed on I’m Your Man. Even as the concert stretched on into an incredible third hour, Cohen seemed to grow in enthusiasm and vocal power. Framed as ever by female singers (frequent collaborator Sharon Robinson and the remarkable Webb sisters, Charley and Hattie), Cohen’s delivery was both rough and confident. Some performers never seem comfortable in their own skin; by contrast, Cohen radiated a magnificent ease in every song, willing to tweak and twist his own words against an audience that knew every word. “Bird on the Wire” was perhaps most transformed, with new lyrics and a sense of hopefulness that was before only an undercurrent. “Anthem,” set against brilliantly golden lighting, was an example of pure joyfulness, while “In My Secret Life,” one of the few recent songs performed, was one of tenderness. And lest the dirty old man of his nature go unforgotten, Cohen’s replacement of “careless” for “anal” in “The Future” can’t be taken as shyness, not when such a wry emphasis on “stuff it up the hole in your culture” followed so quickly.
Still, Cohen would not be Cohen without gloom. “Famous Blue Raincoat” was performed under a cold blue light and ended with the suddenly loud and deliberate “Sincerely, L. Cohen,” somehow surprising even given its familiarity. The spoken word “A Thousand Kisses Deep” was rescued and rehabilitated from the crippling framework of its album counterpart, and was starkly presented with a very faint Hammond organ accompaniment.
The show had too many highlights to mention, even with a brief intermission and a series of encores that each ended with Cohen skipping (yes, literally skipping) off the stage. A solitary complaint could be made though: the stage patter and solos were memorized by rote, each movement of hat, hand and microphone were carefully rehearsed, most unbefitting the spontaneity of live music. Regardless, this performance was full of warmth, enthusiasm and precision flattering to a master. I would not expect an actor to suddenly begin adlibbing Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, and I would not expect anything but the same litany of prescription drugs that Cohen rattles off on the recent Live in London.
As the show passed by far too quickly, Cohen took frequent pauses to express his admiration for his band and backup singers; guitarist Javier Mas was given perhaps the lion’s share of intros and solos, his virtuosity never disappointing. Sharon Robinson took lead vocals on Ten New Songs‘ “Boogie Street,” as did the Webb sisters on a wonderful take of “If It Be Your Will.” The singer introduced the entire band twice during the performance and as the entire band and crew assembled arm in arm at the finale, Cohen took the time to thank the engineers, wardrobe stylists, lighting technicians and seemingly anyone with a hand in the show by name. Humility is a rare trait in a performer, and a welcome one.
If my take on Cohen live seems somewhat hyperbolic, it’s only because it’s hard to describe the utter humanity of someone who is difficult to regard as anything but a living icon. Everything I had ever experienced of the man indicated sorrow, desperation, gloom, anger and sarcasm, sometimes even humor of a quiet and biting kind. But I found that at long last Cohen is willing to show us something else: warmth. Sitting in the vast crowd with my hands stinging with applause, I could only watch wonderingly as someone who has given so much to the world expressed so much gratitude back to us.
(Photos: Mick Orlosky)