As seems to be the case with any cultural icon, fans tend to fall into one of three loosely defined buckets. First come the diehards—those for whom a deep and often emotional investment of time, money, scholarship or all three creates an appreciation falling somewhere between devotion and worship. Second come the more distanced appreciators—respectful and praising of that icon’s highest moments and understanding of his (or her) place in the pantheon, but also unwilling to be an apologist for lesser moments or a rote repeater of well-worn descriptors about that icon purely because “he is who he is.” Third come the dilettantes: Enough knowledge to stay in a cocktail party conversation, enough distance to not bet the mortgage payment on a concert tour, willing to be elevated up the fan devotional latter, but only (usually) if convinced by others.
Thus, the strength of Leonard Cohen’s return to a United States stage on February 19—a three-hour stretch of soul-nourishment at the Beacon Theater, New York’s impressively restored music and performance temple—was that it was extraordinary no matter what type of fan you were. As a diehard, you were assured of your convictions; as an appreciator, gloriously moved; and as a dilettante, completely swayed. The box office was a mad house; the night was freezing; actor Harvey Keitel and singer Rufus Wainwright were there among other celebrities; the well-heeled sipped $10 chardonnay pours; and the Beacon—the glorious, gilded Beacon—said hello like an old friend that had a healthy new glow about him. All of it was secondary.
What did the job? Well, for starters, the Leonard Cohen who sounded so meek and reserved in his past few albums—so withdrawn from a level, at least vocally, that would make for a compelling concert—instead gave way to a Cohen who was almost effortlessly charming, grateful for the adoration (kneeling, several times, in supplication, as if to prove that point), and thorough in proffering the jewels of his massive song and poetry catalog.
He found the exact line, during the first of his two sets, in “Chelsea Hotel #2” where regret and melancholy meet bemusement and bittersweetness, and walked it—letting that weathered, dire-sounding voice carry those loaded verses (“Those were the reasons and that was New York / We were running for the money and the flesh”), and, for the listener, enabling a mind to wander and wrap around the imagery. It would happen again (“Anthem,” with its immortal passage of “Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget you perfect offering / There is a crack, a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in”)—and again (an unhurried “Hallelujah that managed to obscure, if just for a moment, what a pop cultural touchstone covering the song has become among post-Jeff Buckley singer/songwriters), and again (“Suzanne,” so gentle and uncluttered it silenced the room).
Cohen himself, dapper (and more suave than grandfatherly) in black suit and fedora, was fine to be the center of attention and yoke consistently enormous swells of audience adoration. His best performances earned him a number of standing ovations and three times as many loud whoops and loving, adoring call-outs throughout the evening; he smiled, and knelt, and joked—self-effacingly about his antidepressants and his age (74). He sang lines like “I was born like this, I had no choice / I was born with the gift of a golden voice” from “Tower of Song”, and bathed in the eruptions of applause.
But he yielded just as often to a large and involved backing band, which in its size, versatility and virtuosity, only occasionally managed to overcrowd a song, go on too long past a number’s natural conclusion, or, once or twice, let the rawness of Cohen’s lyrics come delivered in too-warm, unbecoming blankets of smooth jazz.
They were a range of heavyweights; bassist and bandleader Roscoe Beck and his colleagues seem to have an understanding of how to polish this music for concert delivery but, crucially, not grease it for easier consumption. The standouts included Javier Mas, who tucked pockets of wildly varied world music styles throughout the songs thanks to mesmerizing work on bandurria, laud, guitar and other piquantly plucked string instruments. And both Sharon Robinson and the justifiably lauded Webb Sisters served up backing and harmony vocals ranging from sturdy pop to beauteous, ethereal gossamer, to cozy soul. They stepped out for one lead each—the commanding “Boogie Street” for Robinson and the Celtic ballad “If It Be Your Will”, for the Webbs—but were far more interesting as colorists for Cohen choruses and delicate, more hopeful counterpoints to the ominous whispers and gravest affectations of their employer’s voice.
Through it all, Cohen held sway over everyone in the band—and the room—with a caressing, squeezing touch that was never crushing, but not timid, either. He brought showmanship flourishes—long introductions for each band member, a literal skip off the stage, the long bows and outstretched hands that say “I know I’m your God, but thank you anyway”—but also, wisely, let the material do as much of the work as it could before the band needed to drive it forward and keep the pace from slowing to poetry recitation.
Most of all, he made sure every song stayed loaded—and conflicted in its emotions—such that every time you wanted to float away into the harmonies, or feel the embrace of a warm organ solo, or nestle into comforting rhythms, a practiced phrase like “I’ve seen the future, brother / It is murder” (in “The Future”) or “And you treated my woman to a flake of your life / And when she came back she was nobody’s wife” (in “Famous Blue Raincoat,” one of six encore songs) would nudge you back to reality and provide you with a feeling of foreboding—or at least disquiet, or melancholy—the more you thought of it.
That’s the Leonard Cohen song brought to bear: He observes, but you are the one unsettled. He and his band play beautifully for three hours, but you are the one exhausted. You’re given a bit of his subconscious—“I bite my lip / I buy what I’m told / From the latest hit / To the wisdom of old / But I’m always alone / And my heart is like ice / And it’s crowded and cold / In my secret life,” he sings at the end of “In My Secret Life”—and he gets the intended effect out of you without ever explicitly saying what that is, or needing to. Life’s confusing, unfair, unforgiving—and sometimes, he’ll grant you, beautiful.