At GM Place on Sunday, April 19
A whippet-thin septuagenarian clad in a two-piece suit and a bolo tie makes for an unlikely pop star, but that’s Leonard Cohen for you. The 74-year-old icon is a walking contradiction (and occasionally a skipping-around-the-stage contradiction), part beatific Zen monk and part Old Testament prophet of doom. The Montreal-born poet’s finest work is seemingly best absorbed in dark-side-of-midnight moments of solitary contemplation, but it somehow comes across just fine in a hockey rink filled with enraptured fans.
Beyond the odd “Thank you, friends,” Cohen didn’t say much to his Vancouver audience. When he did talk, he told the same jokes he used last summer when he played the O2 Arena, as many will discover when they crack the shrink-wrap on the copies of Live in London they picked up at the merch booth. Not that a little recycled stage patter made much difference; Cohen speaks superbly through his songs, and during a show that clocked in at around three hours, he said plenty.
Backed by a crack band dressed in variations on his own well-tailored outfit, Cohen delivered selections spanning most of his recording career. Over the decades since 1967’s Songs of Leonard Cohen, his voice has acquired depth both sonic and symbolic: it’s lower in tone, dipping into the bass-baritone range, but it also has a rich timbre suggestive of a life lived in pursuit of intangibles like truth and beauty. It was predictable, then, that the lines that generated the biggest whoops of appreciation were these from “Tower of Song”: “I was born like this, I had no choice / I was born with the gift of a golden voice.”
It’s funny, yes, because Cohen’s weathered croon is no one’s idea of a heavenly instrument, but it’s also true. Nobody can sing a Leonard Cohen song like Leonard Cohen, which he proved with “Hallelujah”. Thanks to a seemingly endless stream of covers, that mid-’80s tune has become Cohen’s best-known song, even among those who have never heard him sing it. They should, because, at least on this occasion, the author’s version bests them all, sounding simultaneously carnal and divine, like two angels fucking. (And if you think I’m being needlessly vulgar, you clearly haven’t seen the picture on the sleeve of New Skin for the Old Ceremony.)
Mind you, it didn’t hurt Cohen’s case that he had Sharon Robinson and the Webb Sisters backing him with pitch-perfect midnight-mass vocal harmonies, or that keyboardist Neil Larsen’s swirling Hammond B3 sent the song’s chorus pealing through the stadium like a cathedral bell. Indeed, the supporting cast provided the evening with many of its highlights, with Cohen graciously stepping aside (and doffing his trilby) to give each member of his band a turn in the spotlight. Spanish multi-instrumentalist Javier Mas, for instance, displayed lightning-fast fretwork during a stunning laud solo that served as the intro to “Who By Fire”, providing an apt Middle Eastern touch to a song based on an ancient Jewish liturgical poem. Later, Robinson took the lead vocal on a soulful “Boogie Street” (which she cowrote), and Charley and Hattie Webb gave the fatalistic “If It Be Your Will” the benefit of their impeccable duet singing.
Things were just as impressive when the focus was on Cohen himself, as during a shiver-inducing version of “The Partisan” and a simply haunting take on “Suzanne”. That Cohen can still uncover fresh layers of meaning in his own writing was evident in “The Future”: he punctuated the line, “I’m the little Jew who wrote the Bible” with a chuckle, as if the lyric conveyed a joke that he was only just starting to get. It all goes to show, I suppose, that if you keep seeking the aforementioned intangibles, you never stop learning, even from yourself. Cohen is abundantly aware of his advancing years. He even quipped of the last time he played Vancouver, about a decade-and-a-half ago, “I was 60 years old then; just a kid with a crazy dream.”
He said that in London too. But so what? When someone delivers a show as deeply satisfying as this one was, he can get away with telling as many corny old jokes as he likes.