Only Leonard Cohen could transform a space as impersonal and corporately stamped as the HP Pavilion into a dazzling concert hall on a tired Wednesday night. Suburban yuppies filed in alongside the bohemian art elite (with every age and type of person in between) to take up cramped rows of seating that arc the hockey ring where the San Jose Sharks slam into walls and rocket pucks into a net. Only there was no reminder of anything brash or hostile. No suggestions of other events that have taken place in the same venue over the years. For when Leonard Cohen performs live, he completely consumes the space he’s playing to, painting it over with his refined baritone. And for those sitting rapt in the wings, it’s a hypnotic, completely transfixing experience. You scarcely remember to breathe.
Like many Cohen fans, I saw him back in ’09, so excited that an aging and remote musical hero of mine was touring again for the first time in years, and like many Cohen fans, I thought that would likely be my only chance. But that tour was such a tremendous success that Cohen obviously found the impetus to hit the road again, a mere three years later, this time with a brand new album under his belt—he released Old Ideas in January of 2012.
It’s hard for me not to compare, well, anything to the Oakland show I saw in 2009. It was one of the best concerts I have ever seen. Top three. Maybe even number one. Somehow I got ended up with ridiculously good seats, and I sat down in mine with zero expectations; I’d half-expected a worn and feeble old man, shadowy and sepia-tinted, his grandeur antiquated, dated. How wrong I was. Cohen was vital, brimming with life. Charming and dapper. His ”golden voice” imbuing the air we were breathing with velvety tones and his signature wry wisdom. He led his band with the effortless charisma and vision of a sage. He was relatable. He was resolute. He was brilliant.
I got tickets to Wednesday’s HP Pavilion show for $25 before fees (uh yeah, no sixth row seats this time around). But even from the upper reaches of the massive pavilion, Cohen was enthralling. Much of the show mimicked or complemented his ’09 performance. The virtuosic musicians playing alongside him were still totally mesmerizing, some of the best in the world (and from all corners they came). Violin player Alexandru Bublitchi is a new addition, and he took already exquisitely arranged songs to stirring new heights. Three female vocalists—the Web Sisters and longtime Cohen collaborator Sharon Robinson—are an intoxicating counterpart to the bassy resonance of Cohen’s voice, unleashing a vocal cocktail that melts like butter as the lyrics linger on their lips.
Cohen played a lot of standards and a selection of songs from Old Ideas. He played three encores, ultimately closing with a cover of the Drifter’s ”Save the Last Dance for Me.” It was such an encompassing performance, in a gigantic pavilion no less, that I had to shake myself upon its conclusion, lifting myself from the trance he cast, starry eyed and half-asleep from the dream-like depths he and his band took my senses to.
78-year-old Leonard Cohen is one of the best performers touring today. He sets the bar for what our legends can deliver in the late stages of their long and storied careers. If you haven’t seen him yet and you’re a fan, I suggest making sure the opportunity doesn’t pass you by. You will not regret it. That I promise.