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.