Friday, July 18, 2008

'Just a man still workin' for your smile'

Leonard Cohen, London O2 Arena, 17/07/08

There has been much speculation about the motivations for Leonard Cohen’s World Tour being purely financial, with the great singer-songwriter having been duped out of a substantial sum by a duplicitous accountant. The extortionate ticket prices certainly bolstered such arguments, although one can hardly blame Cohen if his promoters exploit a market currently riding high on inflated prices. There’s no hint of money-grabbing in the performance itself though – which at two and a half hours of consistent quality is warm, spirited and generous.

Cohen may be 74 years old but he bounds on to the stage in the sprightly manner of a mere whippersnapper. ‘It’s been a long time since I was last on a stage in London’, he admits, before quipping ‘it was fourteen years ago, I was sixty years old, just a kid with a crazy dream…’ His wry and ironic sense of humour, so often missed by those who caricature him as dour and miserable, is in full bloom tonight. He apologises for ‘not dying’ and claims that, although he spent much time studying the major philosophies and religions, ‘cheerfulness kept breaking through’.

He is a consummate gentleman throughout, addressing the audience as ‘friends’, and frequently removing his splendid fedora in appreciation of his musicians’ individual contributions. If the vast and frankly unpleasant O2 Arena is hardly the most suitable of venues for this kind of subtle and nuanced performance, Cohen makes light of it. ‘It’s good to be gathered here’, he says, ‘on just the other side of intimacy’. Nevertheless, I still felt fortunate to have a seat in the second row of the stalls rather than being stuck in the top tier of the back corner, as I had been for Bruce Springsteen last December.

From the gentle, swaying opener ‘Dance Me To The End Of Love’ to the concluding ‘I Tried To Leave You’, it’s clear that Cohen still cares about all these remarkable songs. He doesn’t mess with the arrangements quite as much as Bob Dylan does these days, but he frequently alters phrasing and dynamics to suit his deepened voice. That being said, this is not the hushed whisper of the ‘Dear Heather’ album, which frequently allowed his chorus of ‘angels’ to do most of the work. Instead, it’s a committed and strong instrument that powerfully communicates the weightiness and insight of his words.

Cohen has never been the most energetic of performers, but tonight there’s a physical quality to his delivery that enhances the effect of these songs. Sometimes he’s down on one knee, serenading the seated Javier Mas, whose Spanish guitar and bandurria statements provide many of the highlights of these tasteful arrangements. Sometimes his eyes are tightly closed, as if searching for a new and deeper meaning in these well-worn songs – sometimes he is clenching his fist in pure determination.

The two sets mostly favour the period from his mid-80s reinvention onwards. The material from ‘I’m Your Man’, despite the album’s deliberately stilted production, still sounds remarkably fresh, sometimes even jovial (particularly in the case of the title track and ‘Tower of Song’). By way of contrast, the songs from ‘The Future’, many of which have a biting political edge, sound frighteningly prescient and immediate, even though that album first emerged way back in 1992. In fact, these songs are crucial to the ebb and flow of the set, as they provide a little energy and bombast to punctuate the otherwise languid and reflective mood. Critics of Cohen’s albums from ‘Various Positions’ onwards have tended to find the cheesy programmed arrangements with budget instrumentation too substantial an obstacle. How hilarious, then, that ‘Tower of Song’ genuinely seems to be built from a preset beat on a Technics organ! The line about being born with a golden voice gets a predictable cheer but even better is Cohen’s concluding joke about discovering the meaning of life in the song’s refrain (‘do-dum-dum-dum-de-do-dum-dum’).

There are selections from his classic, more folky years though, some very predictable and unavoidable (‘Suzanne’, ‘Bird on a Wire’, ‘So Long, Marianne’), others more surprising (a fervent version of ‘Who By Fire’ and a mesmerising ‘The Gypsy’s Wife’). These songs are served well by these delicate and refined full band arrangements, and Cohen’s delivery sometimes adopts a more soulful hue as a result, particularly on a slow and impassioned ‘Bird on a Wire’. The band’s contributions are elegant and complementary, from Bob Metzger’s lyrical guitar flourishes to Dino Soldo’s audacious blasts of high-end saxophone and harmonica.

Crucial to any Cohen performance will always be the interaction between his full-blooded recitations and the softer, enchanting tones of his female backing singers. His regular collaborator Sharon Robinson has a voice full of feeling and sensitivity, thoroughly deserving of its highlighting on ‘Boogie Street’ and ‘I Tried To Leave You’, whilst Britain’s Webb Sisters do an admirable job of providing the sweet, honey-drenched choruses.

The greatest appreciation is reserved for ‘Hallelujah’, a deeply moving song that has grown in stock through interpretations from artists such as Jeff Buckley, Rufus Wainwright, John Cale and kd Lang. Cohen is transparently touched by the belated recognition, as he is by the audience remaining on their feet throughout the three encores. He thoroughly deserves the appreciation though – this is a performance that exceeds all expectation and breathes yet more life into these outstanding songs. The audience clearly do not want it to end and neither, it appears, does Cohen himself. He makes old-age look like something to embrace rather than fear.

1 comment:

Sam Holloway said...

It was a delight from the very start. LC walks on to sustained applause and cheers from close to 20,000 people. Each song is full of warmth, beautifully performed, and LC's voice is sounding better than ever (very surprising, as you say, following Dear Heather). He seems so humbled by the beauty of the occasion; he is almost too deferent to his audience, and possibly too quick to repeatedly acknowledge the solos from his impeccable band. Many people are wondering what an instrument of wind actually is...

From a personal point of view, it was an extremely pleasing set. I first came to Cohen through I'm Your Man, and six of the eight songs on that album were played. All too often, people dismiss LC as maudlin and depressing (perhaps they've only heard his growls on Songs Of Love And Hate?); they miss the humour, warmth and love of his creations. On this night, that sense of mischievousness was in full display: his comments between songs ("don't worry, it goes by itself"), his smiles at his own lyrics and his sheer delight in playing for that crowd.

I contemplated getting tickets for the repeat performance in November, but I've decided not to. When you have experienced perfection and you can hold that experience in your mind, you don't really need to go back again.