Leonard Cohen 2013: A Second Take

ARTS, Music

img_leonardcohen2Old Ideas World Tour, 2013
TSB Bank Arena, Wellington | December 17-18; 21 (Auckland)

The audience was more raptly attentive than for most of the classical concerts I’ve been to. I had come without any great expectations but with the feeling that something special might happen, maybe. By the end of the first half I wasn’t exactly disappointed but certainly wasn’t exhilarated. In fac,t the most memorable event so far was not Cohen but one of his ‘backing’ instrumentalists, Spanish guitarist Javier Mas (who also plays the laud, archilaud, and bandurria), and his thirty seconds or so of solo playing where one breathed the pure air of great gypsy music, its exquisite dissonances and impassioned virtuosity.

In the second half something special did happen, however, and not just once but four times, and for these moments alone I felt privileged to be there. These moments were possible because Cohen sacrificed the warm virtuosic enjoyment, vibrant sound and charm of his nine backers to allow for a greater beauty to take place. The beauty that has nothing to do with a pleasingness of timbre or impressive technique, the beauty that comes about when it combines with truth and meaning, the reason that a Bach will always be greater than a Vivaldi or a Scarlatti, though he may not necessarily be more popular at the time.

The first of these moments was the first song of the second half where Cohen came on stage with a keyboard instrument and had lost most of his backers. He joked about the warm appreciation of the audience to the handful of notes he plucked out of the keyboard, but it was this pared down music which created the atmosphere necessary for his poignant, painful, romantic yet darkly honest poetry to speak in the way it needed to. Another of these moments was nothing more than speaking, rock concert was turned into poetry recital, and the cumulative effect of the poem/song ‘A Thousand Kisses Deep’, with its repetition reminiscent of Bob Dylan, was powerful and haunting.

It was this resonant pianissimo which moved far more than the most energetic songs, appropriate for someone who is now 79 years old. I loved too the movements of his hands, in small expressive gestures up and down, the swinging of an old man, he finds and transmits beauty out of this very old age, so refreshing in a culture obsessed as it is with the cult of the young. One of the songs that dealt with this old age most directly was the one that opened the second set ‘Tower of Song’:

Well my friends are gone and my hair is grey
I ache in the places where I used to play
And I’m crazy for love but I’m not coming on
I’m just paying my rent every day
Oh in the Tower of Song

The image of living in this Tower of Song was so expressive and so beautiful (truthful/ meaningful) that it brought tears to my eyes. I wished there were more of these intimate songs, speaking to the inside. The lively succession of encores seemed endless and I was eager to leave, I knew we wouldn’t be returning to that intimate note, and I wanted to be alone and savour the mental overtones of this tower of song that I knew I wouldn’t forget.