To the Wonder: Leonard Cohen 2013

ARTS, Music

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

Thanks for the trouble you took from her eyes/ I thought it was there for good, so I never tried.” —Leonard Cohen, ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’

Leonard Cohen 2010 was one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen. He and his band were again the second and third time I saw him in Wellington this week. Aged 79, the wondrous Cohen still has that voice, that presence, that grace, and that generosity to his band and the audience. Delivering 28 songs over a three hour set, Cohen gave it pretty much everything he had. Never was there the sense he was just going through the motions.

“Give me back my broken night/ my mirrored room, my secret life… And lie beside me baby, that’s an order!” ‘The Future’, second up, was an early highlight. “Things are going to slide in all directions/ Won’t be nothing/ Nothing you can measure anymore/ The blizzard of the world has crossed the threshold/ and overturned the order of the soul.” Rarely is an apocalyptic vision rendered with such lyricism.

Everybody got that broken feeling/ Like their father or dog just died,” a stirring version of ‘Everybody Knows’ with its totemic evocation of the zeitgeist, also scored. Cohen relished delivering the lines: “Everybody knows that you’ve been faithful/ Give or take a night or two/ Everybody knows you’ve been discreet/ But there were so many people you just had to meet/ Without your clothes/ Everybody knows.

The Queen Wharf Events Centre was hot, but it didn’t matter a bit given the experience we were sharing. On the first night, Cohen thanked his “expert Canadian sound technicians,” how they would make sure the entire audience could hear “every depressing nuance.” True, in an era when it’s not unusual for a leading band like Unknown Mortal Orchestra (a year ago) to have their sound muddied, the music’s clarity and finesse was a joy to behold.  Neither too loud (as gigs too often are), or too soft. However, I don’t find Cohen at all depressing or adolescently indulgent (see Radiohead). Cohen comfortingly plumbs life’s sadness, like Schubert’s Die Winterreise.

The band were uniformly dynamic and precise: Roscoe Beck (musical director, basses); Neil Larsen (keys); Barcelona’s Javier Mas (guitar); Rafael Gayol (drums, percussion); and Austin’s Mitch Watkins (guitars).

The back-up harmonies of Sharon Robinson, and, especially, the Webb Sisters, Charley and Hattie, were angelic. After an interesting but lesser reinterpretation of ‘The Darkness’, Cohen continued with songs from 2012’s Old Ideas, ‘Amen’ and ‘Come Healing’. The autumnal album’s ‘Going Home’ was a humorously deprecating note in the second half: “I love to speak with Leonard/ He’s a sportsman and a shepherd/ He’s a lazy bastard/ Living in a suit.

The stirring ‘Anthem’ took us to half time, following ‘Waiting for the Miracle’: “I haven’t been this happy/ since the end of World War II.” It’s true, he hasn’t, and his happiness is infectious.

The second half was even better. After ‘Tower of Song’ and ‘Suzanne’, Cohen gracefully put ‘Chelsea Hotel#2’ into the stratosphere. Passing that scruffy New York hotel recently—and feeling a distressing sense of mortality— I took comfort that future generations will be given hope by the Cohen/Bob Dylan songs inspired there, when we are all gone, like Lou Reed and Janis Joplin. The concert was almost worth seeing for Cohen breathing new life into his moving elegy.

Rocking, rousing versions of ‘I’m Your Man’ (“The beast won’t go to sleep at night!”), ‘Hallelujah’, ‘First We Take Manhattan’, and ‘Closing Time’, were interspersed with the pure poetry of ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’, ‘If It Be Your Will’, and ‘A Thousand Kisses Deep’: “The heart does not retreat”.

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Alexander Bisley is an editor-at-large who has contributed in-depth interviews and more to The Lumière Reader since 2004. He’s written extensively on culture (and sport) for all of New Zealand’s leading outlets, and also makes his living freelancing for international publications including The Guardian, Slate, and The AV Club. He’s published by The Independent, BBC, Vice, The Sydney Morning Herald, Playboy, and Slate France, and has been paid once by The New Yorker.