As if to contest any argument that he may be too old for this at 74, Leonard Cohen jogged spryly on to the stage at Merriweather Post Pavilion promptly at 7:30 the night of May 11th, and the band kicked into “Dance Me to the End of Love.” Thus began an evening of masterful musicianship, high sartorial style, inspired lighting and some of the most beautiful lyrics ever written in the English language.
Leonard Cohen’s age was reflected in the suit and fedora that he wore. The formal, retro stylishness was reiterated in the breast pocket handkerchiefs, haberdashery, and polished wingtips of his excellent backup musicians. A bygone time was also recalled in the way he would take off his hat while listening to the solos — the melancholy moan of the stand-up bass played by Roscoe Beck, the mandolin hauntingly plucked by Javier Mas, the aching tones of Bob Metzger’s steel pedal guitar — or when accepting the adulation of the audience. When singing, though, his voice belied the years, the low, gravelly growl rumbling strongly in “Tower of Song,” and “I’m Your Man,” the soaring notes achieved in “So Long Marianne” and “Take This Waltz,” the moving subtlety of “The Partisan” and “Anthem.” In between sets, he skipped on and off the stage.
Not even for the best seats in the house, my ticket was just over $100 when ticketing fees were added in, and I grumbled over the un-Buddhist exorbitancy of the most expensive concert ticket I had ever bought. But the investment began to look quite smart when the rain came shortly before the start of the concert. Leonard Cohen made it very clear that he was on this tour for the money, after being fleeced by his former manager (and lover, he ain’t just making up the stories about tortured love affairs). He didn’t just take the money and run. He delivered a concert that was more than 3 hours long, and he played a career-spanning repertoire of songs, from “Suzanne” on through to his latest album from which 3 songs were performed, “In My Secret Life,” “Boogie Street,” written and performed by his longtime songwriting collaborator Sharon Robinson, and “A Thousand Kisses Deep,” powerfully delivered as spoken word. Unfailingly polite and respectful of the audience, Leonard Cohen humbly thanked us for coming to see him, a refreshing change from smug, self-righteous musicians that regard adulation as a tiresome burden better answered with lectures and scorn. He especially acknowledged those who were standing out in the rain on the lawn. He also introduced his band twice to the audience to make sure that they got their well-deserved acclaim.
Often he would get down on one knee, either in deference to his musicians, or as the only sensible position in which to deliver exquisitely elegant lyrics that so perfectly express the fatally flawed human condition. Sometimes he would do a few, tight dance moves of economical exuberance. Or else he would curl up close to himself, eyes closed, to croon both of deforming angst and transcendent ecstasy, occasionally at the same time.
The lighting lent the final master brushstrokes to the evening. Blood red for the flamenco-like “Who by Fire,” bruised blue for “Famous Blue Raincoat,” bright and spot lit for “First We Take Manhattan,” and awash in red, white and blue for “Democracy.” Bathed in a golden light for “Hallelujah,” the stage soon fuzzed into a shimmering haze as the redemption that the theology of music brings to the imperfect human spirit brought me to tears. “There’s a blaze of light in every word, it doesn’t matter which are heard, the holy or the broken Hallelujah.”
Next time he comes to town, I'll pay for the expensive ticket with no complaints. Rent is not cheap in the tower of song.
**Special thanks to Alice Stephens for conributing this review**