Leonard Cohen has been referencing his own mortality in his lyrics for decades now, and on his current world tour the first such hint arrives about a half hour into the show. Near the end of his 1988 classic â€œEverybody Knows,â€ he sings, â€œEverybody knows itâ€™s coming apart / Take one last look at this sacred heart / Before it blowsâ€¦â€ One couldnâ€™t help but sense that Cohenâ€™s mortality â€“ heâ€™s 74, after all â€“ was part of what packed the house on two consecutive nights this weekend at Los Angelesâ€™ Nokia Theatre. It was, perhaps, our last opportunity to watch pop musicâ€™s most poetic singer/songwriter do his thing, and we treated the occasion with all the reverence it demanded.
Why, then, was this septuagenarian skipping â€“ literally, skipping â€“ on and off the stage every chance he got? And how on earth does he manage to pull off a show far longer (three hours plus) than we can reasonably expect Bruce Springsteen to go during his L.A. shows later this week?
Cohenâ€™s clearly enjoying his extended return to the public eye, and heâ€™s eager to wring every moment (and every ounce of irony) from his ability to attract such large audiences at his advanced age. Reminding us on Saturday night that itâ€™s been 15 years since his last major tour, he noted, â€œI was 60 then â€“ just a crazy kid with a dream.â€
His humor, like his set list, is well-rehearsed — heâ€™s been using that line for nearly a year now, and the order of songs performed at his L.A. concerts was nearly identical to the track listing on the recently released Live in London CD, which documents a show from last July. Nevertheless, Cohenâ€™s marathon tour — launched in the wake of last yearâ€™s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and set to continue at least through the end of September — has cemented his place in the pantheon of pop lyricists while reviving his reputation as a live performer. Best of all, it’s a showcase for all the elements of his legendary persona: the genius, the joker, the guru, the rake, the oracle, and (yes) the red-hot lover.
If nothing else, his performances serve as a reminder that we shouldnâ€™t be so quick to dismiss the viability of even the most preposterous May/December romance â€“ the kind Robert Redford and Woody Allen’s recent films beg us to believe in. When itâ€™s Leonard Cohen weâ€™re talking about, at least, itâ€™s entirely feasible for a 75-year-old to be the sexiest, most intriguing man in the room.
Granted, it helps that heâ€™s singing sublimely romantic ballads like â€œSuzanne,â€ hyper-literary epics like the ubiquitous â€œHallelujah,â€ and deliciously wry come-ons like â€œIâ€™m Your Man.â€ But the keys to Cohenâ€™s allure as a performer are his humble, graceful interplay with his musicians and backing singers, and his willingness to match the passion of his lyrics with an intensity that dropped him to his knees on several occasions.
Not that those backing vocalists â€“ Cohen’s longtime collaborator Sharon Robinson, as well as sisters Charley and Hattie Webb — weren’t enough by themselves to make any man’s knees buckle. Subdued yet sultry in their moves, angelic yet ghostly in their harmonies, they expertly provided the distinct, Greek chorus-like counterpoint to Cohen’s musings on songs like “The Future” and “Waiting for the Miracle.” Cohen gave them all numerous turns in the spotlight, most strikingly on the Webb sisters’ gorgeous, harp- and guitar-accompanied rendition of “If It Be Your Will.”
All of the concert’s visual elements â€“ including the passionate, virtuoso playing of multi-instrumentalist Javier Mas â€“ are, of course, missing from the Live in London CD. Iâ€™ve spent the last couple weeks studiously avoiding all reviews of (and tracks posted from) that two-disc set â€“ sorry, Ken Shane — and after Saturday night Iâ€™m particularly glad I did. For while it adequately showcases the timeless quality of his songs, the recording strips away the sensuality of Cohenâ€™s show â€“ and, in the process, makes him sound at least 10 years older and vaguely decrepit, which he hardly deserves.
As is typical of “live” recordings — quick, name five really good ones! — London also emphasizes the show’s principal flaw, which is the homogeneity of musical director Roscoe Beck’s arrangements. They’re tasteful (to a fault), but they tend to overcomplicate Cohen’s early, folkie songs (“So Long, Marianne,” “Sisters of Mercy”) while taking the edge off the death-disco qualities of “First We Take Manhattan” and “Closing Time.” The resulting sameness is overcome by the staging of the live concert, but creates a chilly monotony on the CD. (Hopefully the DVD version, which I have not seen, offers a more complete and compelling take on the concert.)
I bought and listened to the Live in London CD yesterday, but it will be a long time before I play it again. Iâ€™d rather remember the sound and vision thatâ€™s lodged in my head from Saturday night â€“ and Iâ€™d rather look forward to this coming Friday, when Iâ€™ll watch Cohen take the stage again at Coachella. I donâ€™t doubt heâ€™ll find a way to enrapture an audience full of Morrissey and McCartney and Franz Ferdinand fans the same way he held spellbound the devotees who populated this weekendâ€™s gigs.
One other thing worth mentioning: I had never heard a pop singer thank his sound engineer from the stage before, but Cohenâ€™s shoutout to Mark Vreeken was a welcome quirk. Vreeken apparently has done masterful work throughout this tour, creating open soundscapes that allow each instrument plenty of space to be appreciated. Iâ€™ve seen only three shows at the 18-month-old Nokia, part of the sparkling L.A. Live complex downtown, but Vreekenâ€™s sound design was by far the best Iâ€™ve heard at any facility in the city. Cohen’s kudos were well deserved.
And finally, a fun fact: The keyboard player in Cohen’s touring band is Neil Larsen — who once upon a time was half-namesake of the Larsen-Feiten Band, purveyors (in 1980) of the cheesetastic hit “Who’ll Be the Fool Tonight.”