Leonard Cohen weaves timeless magic in Vancouver
At Rogers Arena on Thursday, December 2
Leonard Cohen is on top of the world, living a poet-vagabond’s dream. Since he started touring again in May 2008, after a long hiatus, he’s performed three-hour shows in more than 200 cities on four continents, and far from showing signs of fatigue, the 75-year-old looks spry and fit, and happy to be on stage. For his performance at Rogers Arena, Cohen came on jogging, and, at the end of the long first set, he literally pranced off, with one arm raised and flapping comically.
The Montreal–born writer and singer was happy to be in his homeland once again. “It must have been 40 years ago after a show in England some journalist wrote ”˜Leonard Cohen is a boring old drone, and should go the fuck back to Canada where he belongs,’ ” he told the sold-out audience at one point. After listing off a string of great Canadian artists from Gordon Lightfoot to Neil Young, he ended with “Well, I got that off my chest.” The crowd roared, and Cohen beamed, before launching into “Anthem”, savouring the chorus: “There’s a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in”. He proved that poetic affirmation with his voice, which was rough, dark, and frayed at the edges yet superbly luminous, with all lyrics clearly articulated to make the words shine.
Cohen reeled through a back-catalogue of his greatest songs. The list and the order were essentially the same as on his previous Vancouver visit in April last year, but nobody was complaining or yelling out for favourites. The audience stayed rapt, hanging on every word, and the sound was so good you could hear every syllable.
A dry, almost-monotone delivery is Cohen’s way of drawing the listener in; if he drones, that’s an asset not a fault. His singing on this night was mesmeric and cleverly nuanced, the phrasing and slight shifts of timbre, volume, and texture making the performance captivating. For “The Future” he raised his voice to a growl in places as he railed against brutality and stupidity. For “Bird on a Wire” he drew out the spaces between lines to suggest the bewilderment of a man confronted by his own dark side.
The singer’s gestures were also carefully calibrated to enhance the sense of intimacy. Most of the time Cohen was hunched over the microphone in his left hand, while his right hand responded to lyrics with small clutching or waving motions. In many songs he got down on his knees at the front of the stage, not to evoke prayer but to increase his sense of vulnerability and closeness to the audience. As a result, this didn’t feel like a show in a hockey arena.
Cohen also kneeled several times in front of Catalan-strings wizard Javier Mas as his sideman played solos on bandurria, Cuban laud, archilaud, and guitar. Canada's most famous poet seemed genuinely in awe of his nine-piece band, and with good cause—all the musicians played magnificently. Keyboardist Neil Larsen was superb on Hammond B3 organ, embellishing songs with swirling flourishes, Dino Soldo displayed a master’s command of an array of instruments (saxophone, electronic clarinet, keyboards, and harmonica), keeping the sonic textures varied. And Cohen’s ultra-low register was sweetly offset by his three backing singers Sharon Robinson, and sisters Charley and Hattie Webb, the latter occasionally playing a suitably angelic small harp.
Toward the end of the show Cohen, who treated the audience with great respect and gratitude throughout, confided that it might be a while before he returned this way. Let’s hope not. His performance was warm and immensely dignified, and the skip in his parting step hinted that he’s still having a blast being a song and dance man, as well as a great poet.