Prior to March 13, 2013, it has been 38 years since Leonard Cohen had performed in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Perhaps that is, in part, why the legendary 78 year-old musician played for over three hours and delivered a set spanning 28 songs and nine albums.
Kicking off shortly after the 8:00 PM start time with no opening act, Cohen’s large band (around ten musicians) took the stage moments before Cohen entered and started the show with “Dance Me to the End of Love”. He gave the crowd a warm welcome after that, noting how long it had been since he was last there and saying he didn’t want to be a nuisance. From the first song on, Cohen delivered much of his performance crouching or down on his knees, rarely taking up an instrument himself.
And why would he need to, when surrounded by so many talented musicians? Cohen introduced his bandmates several times, and the audience learned that his band was comprised of musicians from all over the world. A special treat was that Cohen’s cowriter and producer, Sharon Robinson, was one of his three backing vocalists. Many chances for the musicians to perform solos were offered, and television monitors in the Milwaukee Theatre showed close-ups of each performing musician. While this was usually a treat of excellent musicianship, the three solos in “Who By Fire” were a bit much, and some of the solos were stylistically misplaced. One highlight of the first set was a stark spoken word recitation of “A Thousand Kisses Deep” from his 2001 release Ten New Songs.
Though Cohen was touring in support of his most recent release, Old Ideas, the setlist (available here) mostly featured his most well-known songs and was a veritable “greatest hits” recital. The main set was divided into two with an intermission, and the first set closed with a long rendition of “Anthem”, after which Cohen re-introduced the band and even thanked his entire crew by name. If there was any flaw to be found in the first set, it was that the delivery was perhaps too polished and lacked spontaneity and rough edges that might make for a more intimate concert experience. Still, especially considering the ultra-professional sound and staff at the venue, it was nice to see a concert run so smoothly.
After a brief intermission, Cohen took the stage again. He stood before a small keyboard, which he drily introduced as a sophisticated machine, and proceeded to play one of the keyboard’s programmed beats before plinking out a brief solo that began “Tower of Song”. This segment was endearing, and after Cohen received applause for his solo, he remarked that the audience was humoring him and then played the keyboard briefly with his elbow, drawing laughter even from his bandmates. A stripped-down, simply gorgeous version of “Suzanne” followed, featuring an evocative violin solo. A few songs later, Cohen was silent as Sharon Robinson sang lead vocals to “Alexandra Leaving” to thunderous applause and a standing ovation. Cohen followed this with a lively version of “I’m Your Man” and then eased into “Hallelujah”. While this was arguably the night’s most anticipated song, and it too received a standing ovation, the performance could have been better. The arrangement was quite busy, which overshadowed Cohen’s vocals, which were his most expressive of the night. Further, the lightning director made the questionable decision to bring the lights up and illuminate the audience during the song’s chorus, creating a strange ambience and often distracting listeners from the song itself. After “Hallelujah”, Cohen and his band closed the main set with a long performance of “Take This Waltz” before Cohen literally danced offstage. Considering that it was 11:00 PM by now, the audience was unsure if an encore would follow, and Cohen surprised the crowd by delivering six more songs.
The first song of the first encore was the famous “So Long, Marianne”, which also featured a somewhat cluttered arrangement that masked the beauty of his song. Each performance that followed was extravagant enough that it seemed like it could be the closing number, and when “First We Take Manhattan” closed the first encore, it once again seemed like the band could be done for the night.
But, once again, Cohen re-emerged, this time to perform an emotional rendering of “Famous Blue Raincoat”. Instead of closing the song with its traditional sign-off, “Sincerely, L. Cohen,” Cohen curiously sang, “Sincerely, a friend.” The second song of the second encore was one of the few slightly questionable choices, as Cohen had his two other backing vocalists, the Webb Sisters, perform “If It Be Your Will” while accompanying themselves on harp and guitar. Though their harmonies were lovely, having other people perform such a seminal Cohen song was disappointing, especially since there was only one more song left for the night. A properly rowdy version of “Closing Time” finished the show, and the audience was to their feet for the final time, just happy to be in Cohen’s presence again after all these years.