The loss of five million dollars can light a fire underneath anyone, even a serene, 74-year-old Buddhist poet/singer-songwriter, but to Leonard Cohen’s great credit, not only did he refuse to wither away after being swindled out of his savings and royalties by his former manager, but in the past year he’s returned to the stage, exhibiting a level of passion, verve, and grace that’s caught even his longtime fans by surprise.
When 2008 rolled around, it had been 15 years since the Canadian legend last toured (in support of his great 1992 album The Future), but with the help of a brilliant nine-piece supporting band, he headed back on the road with gusto, playing more than 60 dates in Eastern Canada, the UK, and Europe. By the time Cohen and band played to a huge crowd of 20,000 at London’s O2 Arena on July 17th, they were well-oiled, two months into the big comeback tour, and with recording and film crews there to capture the event, they went on to deliver a spellbinding, seductive, pristine, near-three-hour set that spanned the man’s 40-year musical career. And now nine months later, in addition to being a fine teaser for Cohen’s extensive North American tour this spring, that London performance has yielded one of the finest live albums to come our way in a long while.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve stood on the stage in London,” Cohen muses at one point between songs, adding with his typical droll humor, “It was about 14 or 15 years ago, I was 60 years old, just a kid with a crazy dream… I’ve studied deeply in philosophies and religions, but cheerfulness kept breaking through.” And from the opening salvos of the gorgeous, cabaret-tinged “Dance Me to the End of Love”, it’s clear that he has not lost a step whatsoever, his resonant, cigarette-deepened baritone voice enveloping us, brilliantly interweaving with the dulcet tones of his trademark trio of background singers. Part vocal foils, part muses, the trio of longtime collaborator Sharon Robinson and welcome new young additions Charley and Hattie Webb (known to many followers of UK pop as simply the Webb Sisters) continually engage in a playful tug-of-war with the stately bard. Going back to his first breakthrough single “Suzanne”, those female voices are central to Cohen’s sound, and throughout the 26-song set, Robinson and the Webb sisters more than prove their worth, whether it be cooing away on “Tower of Song” or taking solo turns on lovely renditions of “Boogie Street” and “If It Be Your Will”.
Led by bassist/musical director Roscoe Beck, who has worked with Cohen since 1979, the rest of the band is tremendous, leaping easily from the low-key folk of Cohen’s 1960s material to the more new wave-ish sounds of his 1980s catalog. Neil Larson adds some Hammond B3 to “Bird on the Wire”, adding an elegiac, Garth Hudson-like touch to the performance, while Dino Soldo, so eloquently described by Cohen as the “master of breath, on the instrument of wind,” adds some unabashedly smooth saxophone solos on “Ain’t No Cure for Love”. For all the superb performances (Bob Metzger’s electric guitar and pedal steel contributions cannot be underestimated), the key addition to the band is multi-instrumentalist Javier Mas, whose expressive bandurria, laud, archilaud, and 12-string guitar fills are central, adding a mysterious, gypsy-like feel to nearly every song. And typical of the gracious and humble Cohen, he never hesitates to acknowledge his backing musicians, adding a classy introduction whenever anyone has a brief solo.
As much as he tries to deflect the attention onto his crack band, this performance is still all about Mr. Cohen, who for all his technical vocal limitations, still exudes a charisma that few singers can match. Interestingly, the songs most cherished by his baby boomer fans, such as “Suzanne”, “So Long, Marianne”, “Sisters of Mercy”, and “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye”, are the most understated performances, Cohen’s delivery tender, almost overly polite.
It’s when we get deeper into his career, namely the albums like The Future and his 1988 masterpiece I’m Your Man, which won Cohen a new generation of fans, that Cohen truly gains some serious momentum. Although he tidies up part of “The Future” (“Give me crack and careless sex”), the track still seethes with cynicism, feeling more portentous than ever. His voice of doom on “Everybody Knows” is continually answered by Mas’s beautiful fills. The slinky jazz of “I’m Your Man” and the rollicking “Closing Time” transform the vast, generic arena into a drowsy, smoky bar, drummer Rafael Gayol adds subtle dance beats to the sinister “First We Take Manhattan”, while “Democracy” sees Cohen forcefully delivering some of the finest lyrics of his esteemed career (“I’m stubborn as those garbage bags that Time cannot decay / I’m junk but I’m still holding up this little wild bouquet”).
Many will consider the restrained interpretation of the classic “Hallelujah” to be one of the concert’s high points, but the big surprise just might be Cohen’s simple recitation of his poem “A Thousand Kisses Deep”, which inspired the song of the same name on 2001’s underrated Ten New Songs. Accompanied by Larsen’s subtle, ambient synths, the power of the reading is jaw-dropping, and it feels like you can hear a pin drop in the packed arena. “I’m good at love, I’m good at hate / It’s in between I freeze,” he says at one point. You can be as self-deprecating as you want, Len, but the rest of us, from those who swoon at your poem to those who wish like hell they’d written it, we would all beg to differ.