In the presence of greatness
November 7, 2010 - 5:02PM
Leonard Cohen in Brisbane.
It is redundant to use superlatives in a review of Leonard Cohen, yet it is also unavoidable.
Simply put, Cohen is the greatest singer-songwriter of the last century: Bob Dylan would be the only other artist who could also be considered deserving of this title.
Since 1967, Cohen has recorded eleven studio albums, five live albums, four compilation albums, and has been the subject of five tribute albums. He has also published two novels and 10 collections of poetry, prose, songs, drawings and psalms.
Cohen has received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, is a Companion of the Order of Canada, and was inducted into the American Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2008 and the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2010.
To be perfectly honest, I don't even know why I got a review ticket to his show at the Brisbane Entertainment Centre last night. I'm just thankful that I did. The man is mesmerising.
Cohen turned 76 this year, and many critics now talk about his frailty and old age. Just last year he collapsed in Valencia, Spain, during a performance of Bird on the Wire.
Yet, the only hint of ageing last night was Cohen's greying hair under his iconic Stetson fedora. He ran on stage at the opening of his performance, skipped off again for the interval, performed 24 songs, recited one poem, and gave two encores.
Cohen tours with six musicians, back-up singers the Webb Sisters, his collaborator Sharon Robinson and, as a group, they produce a show that stands alone lyrically and musically.
Javier Mas is, as Cohen repeatedly declared last night, a master virtuoso on the archilaud and twelve-string guitar. Mas's solo introduction to Who By Fire was one of the highlights of the show.
Dino Soldo is charismatic on saxophone and wind instruments; Cohen repeatedly doffed his fedora in recognition of Soldo's improvisations.
Cohen's keyboardist, Neil Larsen, has received a Grammy nomination and the tour's music director, Roscoe Bec, designed a signature five-string bass guitar for Fender.
Yet for all the musicians' talent, the pinnacle of last night's show was a set of three tracks performed by Cohen, alone, after the interval: Tower of Song, Suzanne and Avalanche.
There was no multimedia show, no flamboyant lighting, no rock star histrionics, just Cohen, his guitar, a microphone and minimal lighting, and the audience was captivated.
It is increasingly rare to witness a performance of such simplicity and intimacy and it is a credit to Cohen that he still puts on such a show and is able to completely transfix an audience in a venue as bleak and charmless as the BEC.
Cohen performed all of his well-known and well-loved tracks, including Everybody Knows, Chelsea Hotel, Anthem, Suzanne, Hallelujah, I'm Your Man, So Long, Marianne and Famous Blue Raincoat.
Musically, the songs are classics but it is Cohen's gravel voice and lyrics that hook into you and don't let you go. His collections of poetry and his novels have received a number of awards and this literary background is evident in Cohen's lyrics.
In Take this Waltz, for example, Cohen plays on lines from Federico García Lorca's poem Little Viennese Waltz. Biblical and religious themes are also a regular feature of Cohen's lyrics, as in The Darkness, Born in Chains, and Hallelujah.
Yet for all his prodigious talent, charisma and charm, Cohen appears humble and grounded. Performers of Cohen's stature regularly name and thank their band members and back-up singers but Cohen went further last night, thanking sound technicians, lighting technicians and stage directors by their full names.
Later this month, on the 20th, Cohen will be performing at Hanging Rock, Victoria. The show is sure to be one of the Cohen's most memorable and if you have the chance, get there anyway you can.