Leonard Cohen delivers masterful performance

A review of Leonard Cohen at the Citi Wang Theatre on May 30, 2009

, Staff

Leonard Cohen, the Bard of the Beaten, appeared in Boston on Saturday night in a new guise: the Zen Sinatra. With a nine-piece backing band, a sunny disposition, and a really sharp suit, Cohen took an extended tour through his catalog, revisiting hits and introducing lesser-known pieces, and demonstrating that the man known for his somber and cynical ballads of the seamy side of life and his subdued delivery has another side. The Cohen we saw on stage on Saturday was the consummate showman, and apparently delighted to be on the stage singing his songs of gloom and desperation.

He certainly had every cause to be happy on that stage. A man long felt to eptiomize the range of moods running south of dour, recently hit with very severe and very public financial setbacks, and until recently more known in the popular mind for the esteem in which his songs were held than the songs themselves or his performances of them, he is suddenly the single most stunning performer on concert hall stages, and he knows it. The critical reaction to his current tour has gone beyond overwhelming – it is, as near as I can tell, unanimous. This is, according to people who listen to music rock music professionally, just about the best thing that ever happened.

I can go along with that. This was not simply a great concert by a great performer, and it was certainly not a victory lap by the reknowned and fading hero. I’ve been to those concerts, and they have their place. This was not simply a great concert, because it was not simply a concert. It was a production which put poetry at its core, surrounded that poetry with music, and put the whole thing forth with a conscious and deliberate air of theater.

There was certainly a concert in all of this. Cohen is touring with an excellent band, under the direction of his bassist Roscoe Beck, and featuring Spanish guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Javier Mas and reedman Dino Soldo as well as keyboardist Neil Larsen. Dividing the most prominent parts among them, these three create the musical drapery that swirls around Cohen’s lyrics, always staying close around him but never obscuring him. While Cohen’s melodies have never been the foremost attraction of his music, Beck’s arrangements tended to shore up these melodies, with the help of the backing vocals of Sharon Robinson and Charley and Hattie Webb, who were by turns Cohen’s Greek chorus and his Raylettes, providing both harmonic and dramatic support to the songs. Always alive to implications, Cohen seemed to enjoy shifting the roles of the singers throughout the concert, sometimes turning to them as if addressing a muse, sometimes ceding the spotlight to them – so they could sing his lyrics, to him. He played with them, teased them, and made them do tricks. This, of course, was all part of the theater of the thing.

And theater it was. As a dramatic presentation, it was little different from the more ordinary kind. A cast of characters occupied a stage and acted their parts to realize the auteur’s vision, that being (one hopes) to direct the audience’s attention to some commonly noted areas of the human experience and reveal them in new forms. The band, as supporting cast, knew their marks, and hit them, not as a sort of rote exercise, but as precisely as characters in a play, and the drama they created, in music and in their physical presence, focused the audience’s attention on the soliloquy at center stage. The leading man displayed a marvelous physicality as he delivered his lines – even standing stock still, he was a distinct presence, until he chose to disappear into the shadows and allow another player to step into the light. And when he sank to his knees to deliver a lyric, or augmented a verse with an outstretched hand, there was a majesty in the economy of his movement that outstripped the frantic jogging of a Mick Jagger or a Bruce Springsteen. As good as they are, they can’t play in this league. Other performers demonstrate energy. Leonard Cohen, tonight, was a paragon of grace. Not only the grace of a Sinatra, with the perfectly timed delivery that gets the songs across exactly as they should be, but also the grace of a monk, of someone who can speak simply and directly of love or of anything else in a manner that seems, if not perfectly accurate or perfectly complete, perfectly true. In the end, I was left with a sense that I understood the songs and the singer in a way that I hadn’t managed to before, and possibly that I understood the people around me a little more as well.

And this is the sensation, I think, that so many people have responded to after attending one of Cohen’s performances in the last year: the sense of a deeper connection, a spiritual one if you like, to the songs and to the world. It’s common enough to be blown away by a concert; Cohen’s aim seems to be more one of bringing together than of scattering.

But I suppose I should mention, since I know some will want to know: yes, he played "Suzanne" and "Who By Fire" and "Hallelujah" and "Chelsea Hotel" and "Bird on a Wire" and probably every other song you were wanting to hear, and you can hear them on YouTube.

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