May 30th, 2009

Leonard Cohen comes to Boston

Okay, quick: how many 74-year olds could give a three-plus-hour concert night after night and leave the audience hungry for more? Leonard Cohen, that’s who, and last night it was Boston’s turn to savor the pleasure, and my turn to sit in the audience with over 3500 other lucky Cohen aficionados.

He didn’t disappoint, not for a minute. There were no obscurities from the Cohen oeuvre last night, either—it was Greatest Hits all the way, and in this case “great” is not hyperbole, it’s understatement.

Since I knew nearly every word of every song, I was tempted to sing along as I do at home. But everyone in my proximity was spared that experience by dint of my great forbearance; I limited myself to a lot of swaying and a few happy yelps when I’d hear the opening notes of a particular favorite.

As I’ve written before, Leonard Cohen is not for everyone (although he’s certainly for me). Some find him boring, some find him droning, some find him hard to tell apart from Dustin Hoffman until he opens his mouth (although as they’ve both aged, they look a lot less alike than they used to). But I find him to be one of the most compelling and hypnotic singer-songwriters, poet-musicians—whatever sort of hyphenated descriptive term you prefer—in the world.

Cohen spent a lot of time last night with his hat on and his eyes closed and his legs bent or even in a full kneel (try doing that when you’re seventy-four), facing his backup singers or his musicians and singing to them. It sounds as though this would distance him from the audience, but it didn’t; it’s his way of reaching deep within himself to give the greatest emotional power to each song. The words are neither more nor less important than the music, and although he’s probably sung each composition hundreds or even thousands of times, he never seems to be just going through the motions.

For example, when Cohen sang “Suzanne,” one of his earliest songs, he brought thick layers of memory to those of us who had first heard it back in high school or college in the 60s, from a Leonard Cohen who seemed mature at the time but was only in his mid-thirties. How did he make it seem so fresh now, singing it as an old man? His voice is far deeper (deeper even than I’d heard it sound recently in You Tube videos from the current tour—how deep can a man’s voice get and still be heard by the human ear?) But that’s not the only thing that’s deeper; you can hear all the ache of the intervening years—the hard-won wisdom and the hard-fought pain—in his phrasing and tone, and as you listen you nod and think of all that you’ve been through in those same passing decades.

Cohen’s musicians and backup singers are all extraordinary artists as well. Each one has more than a moment in the spotlight and each one is fully up to the task. This is no small part of what is so satisfying about a Cohen concert. One is carried along not only by Cohen’s sonorous voice, his powerful presence despite his diminutive size, and the force of the songs themselves, but also by the wall of sound that accompanies them. No song ever sounds exactly the way it did on the record, nor does it sound exactly the way it did on the You Tube video of some other concert, but it is a tribute to the extraordinary musicality of Cohen and everyone else on the stage that none of the new variations is ever a disappointment no matter how deeply entrenched in one’s head a beloved original might be. Each new phrasing, each new riff, is a revelation.

I have just used the word “revelation,” and it points to another characteristic of Cohen’s work: there is a religious undercurrent to it, even when he’s singing about sex (or maybe especially when he’s singing about sex). How he manages to combine the worldly and even the world-weary with the ecstatic and the numinous is a mystery, but his music is permeated with this sense.

Towards the end of the evening it became even more apparent, as he closed the night with encore after encore for the ecstatic crowd that didn’t want to let him go, and then gave them a benediction in farewell. One wonders if there will ever be another Leonard Cohen tour. But one can hope. Meanwhile, the cries of “we love you, Leonard!” rang out from the audience as it said its goodbyes.

24 Responses to “Leonard Cohen comes to Boston”

  1. dane Says:

    Not too many people I would pay to see in concert anymore – but he’s one of you. I envy you the experience and glad he did not disappoint. Suzanne was one of the first songs I learned to play on the guitar.

  2. waltj Says:

    Can’t say I’m familiar with Cohen or his music, but I get the concert experience. I saw Andres Segovia in concert in Chicago a few years before his death, when he was in his early 90s. His fingers weren’t quite as nimble as they once were, but he could still make that guitar sing. We kept calling him back for encores until he finally said, “Please, I’d love to continue, but my guitar is getting tired”. Reluctantly, we in the audience called it an evening. I’m happy I got to see him in person. He’s been gone some years now, but I still have the memories of that night in Chicago.

  3. Tatyana Says:

    You and Karol, both.

  4. vanderleun Says:

    To those “not familiar with Cohen or his music” one can only say: “GIT SOME!”

  5. spoot Says:

    I never got that much into Leonard Cohen, but his songwriting talent is matched by none. His music came from a time when artists had more autonomy to find their talents and their audiences, not sure why that is. I can’t imagine him finding recognition these days if he was just breaking in to the business, but then maybe I’m out of touch with the zeitgeist.

    It’s sad that he was forced to resume touring because he lost all his retirement funds from a swindling business manager, but then it might be a blessing in disguise. At his age it must be exhausting but also, how exhilarating to stand before enraptured crowds after singing your heart out.

    Here’s a version of his song, Hallelujah by K.D. Laing. Cohen apparently watched her perform it and said “”I was in the room when K.D. Lang sang it at the Canadian Songwriters’ Hall of Fame. That really touched me”


  6. expat Says:

    The first time I went out to dinner with my husband, our conversation turned to music. Leonard Cohen was a clicking point.

  7. huxley Says:

    I’ve been crazy for Leonard Cohen since hearing Noel Harrison’s cover of Suzanne in 1968.

    I’d have gone to the nearest LC show this time if it hadn’t sold out in 24 hours.

    As spoot says, I think Cohen’s financial difficulties are a blessing in disguise — to get him out of the Zen monastery and back on the road for one last hurrah … or, who knows, several.

  8. marine's mom Says:

    Neo, I am SO jealous. First time I ever heard of LC was on your blog. I quickly became a fan and now “Dance me to the End of Love” is my very favourite song, followed closely by “Hallelujah,” which I already liked but didn’t know he wrote. Wonder if he ever gets up to the Northwest. He could sing to me!

  9. Cappy Says:

    Not bad for an alta kocker.

  10. Gringo Says:

    I was never much of a Leonard Cohen fan, but of seeing an older artist still performing well, oh yes. I saw Duke Ellington perform at Newport in New York several years before he died. I saw Stefan Grapelli perform when in his 80s: a remarkable performance.

  11. dennis ledford Says:

    a stunning performance, the master of lovesong, a true artist, the best of the best, HALLELUJAH

  12. virgil xenophon Says:

    Not only do I consider Cohen’s album “Songs of Love and Hate” his best–I consider it one of the best thematicaly coherent (and artistically great) albums of all time. But that’s just suicidelly inclined me….

  13. virgil xenophon Says:

    PS: I’m old enough to have attended concerts by both Ellington and Segovia in their prime–unfortunately never one by Cohen.

  14. Lynn Says:

    Leonard Cohen has been singing in my ear since I was 15 or 17 or some other impossibly tender age, and he still speaks to me as none other. I splurged on a 2nd row (pit) seat for the Boston concert, and it was worth every penny. I was in NYC for the Beacon concert. The two were quite different, but he’s still “My Man.” I am hopelessly enthralled with the very elegant, very gifted Mr. Cohen.

  15. Doom Says:

    Wow, what a thing. As with many others, I am jealous if in the best of ways. Though only a relatively new fan, I do not think a fan of his can be a light or simple fan. Either one falls in head over heals or they just do not become a lover of that music.

    I have always sensed the religious undertones in his music. Sometimes I ‘see’ things through his music. I have never quite understood what I am seeing or hearing with regards to God, only that it is there, powerfully. At one time I considered looking into his bio to try and find clues but I decided to just let things be and remain ignorant.

    I am so pleased you found a seat, the strength to not sing along, and came away fulfilled.

  16. Beverly Says:

    Ahhh. Leonard Cohen. What can I say?

    This cover of his “If It Be Your Will,” by Antony, made Lou Reed cry. Powerful, moving, heart-piercing. …

    If you haven’t seen it, and you love Leonard Cohen, do, please watch the tribute documentary “I’m Your Man.” Wonderful. Marvelous singers doing covers of their favorite Cohen songs in a tribute concert Down Under, intercut with interview segments with Leonard himself. Finished with Leonard doing his own songs.

    Not to be missed.

  17. Beverly Says:

    Neo, that song is a direct appeal to God. A heartbreaking one.

  18. Petitedov Says:

    He was amazing! I went to see him Saturday night, I was just so blown away by his talent and how humble he was! He has such a strong, genuine presence. Also the Wang Center was a great venue, so beautiful! Glad you are fan as well!

  19. neo-neocon Says:

    Petitedov: I also was struck by the Wang; hadn’t been there in quite some time but it was looking good.

    Cohen most definitely has a remarkable presence. What always amazes me is that his backup singers and musicians seem to partake of that, too, when they’re singing or playing on his tours. There have been many female backup singers over the years, but when they are performing with him their singing seems to be more deeply spiritual and they seem selfless, dropping the showboating and just letting the music come through in a very humble way. It is really quite extraordinary.

    For example, because the Webb sisters were so good at the concert, I looked up some of their other, non-Cohen, work on videos at You Tube, and although they had nice voices I was not all that impressed. But with Cohen they were sublime.

  20. Petitedov Says:

    I’m not sure why I used so many exclamation points – I guess I get very excited about L. Cohen. Each performer with him was incredible, I haven’t been able to look at their solo work – but you are probably are correct – he is part of the magic. I also liked his sense of humor on stage subtle yet clever in a non-showy off way. Okay I have to stop gushing. I’m happy to learn you like Cohen as well. 🙂

  21. Suds46 Says:

    Sometime after the invasion of Afghanistan, there was a slide show that showed up on the web of our troops in action over there. It was very patriotic and the sound track haunted me until I could find out what it was. Turned out it was Jeff Buckley’s recording of “Hallelujah.” That led me to Buckley when in turn led me to Cohen. I remember listening to “Suzanne” back in the late 60’s (Judy Collins???), but was unaware of Leonard Cohen.

    Since then, I’ve seen several versions of Cohen doing “Hallelujah” as well as at least half a dozen covers by other artists. But I don’t think any of the artists who have done that song have included Cohen’s final verse in which he says,”And even though it all went wrong, I’ll stand before the Lord of Song, with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah.” The song seems incomplete without that final verse.

  22. Gary Says:

    AAAaahhhh – – you’re not a TOTAL neo-con….

    I still sense some goodness in your heart…………..come back from the Dark Side.

  23. neo-neocon Says:

    Well Gary, you know, “there’s a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” 🙂

  24. Letitia Splain Dayer Says:

    I had the exquisite experience of being in the Wang Theater on May 20th with a filmmaker friend who know nothing of Leonard. Before the night was over, she had fallen in love and my love just grew deeper for the great Leonard Cohen. He gave himself over to the moment with reverence, humility and respect as well as the well-earned joy and appreciation at the endless applause laid at his feet. … As Pico Iyer so beautifully noted in the program’s liner notes (“No Disguises in the Dark”) “… beneath all that, what Leonard Cohen on tour in the 21st Century tells us is that all of us, in our solitary trembling, we can come together in a kind of communion. So many of us have been listening to him alone … but here for the first time in fifteen years, we’re all together in our observances. People stand up to welcome the stranger home, and rise up again, and again, in battalions as they recognize their old lives coming up. No one needs flashing lights or changes of costume; the words and the feeling are enough.”

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.

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