Live Review: Leonard Cohen Mesmerizes Again
November 6th, 2012, 3:30 pm · ·
Posted by BEN WENER, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
Leonard Cohen smiles at the audience at the start of his Nokia Theatre performance Monday night,
the 78-year-old legend’s first L.A. appearance in almost four years.
Photo: Kelly A. Swift, for the Register. Click the pic for more
I knew going into Leonard Cohen’s return to Nokia Theatre Monday night that it couldn’t possibly be as magical as what I witnessed the first time he played there, a little less than four years ago, when he finally stepped on a Los Angeles stage again after a decade and a half away.
That was a miracle for which we deep admirers had pretty much stopped waiting. Those of us now in our mid-40s or so, who by and large initially encountered his singular music when we were in college, as other generations did and still do … well, we logically assumed we’d never see him live, ever. He hadn’t just ceased performing in the early ’90s, after all – he’d entered into a monastic Zen way of life that lasted until Y2K.
New material emerged once he did the same, including 2001’s Ten New Songs and 2004’s Dear Heather, fine additions to his catalog that, like so many discs before them, went overlooked by all but faithful critics and fans. But the resumption of his recording career was never reason enough to think such a reclusive figure would start touring again as he settled into his 70s.
But as Cohen’s lyrics have so often reiterated, whether pondering gray areas between love and lust, the intricacies of the spiritual mind or the atrocities of mankind, life is foremost unpredictable. Would he have returned to engross us in person had there not been an unexpected impetus, or would he have remained hidden from public view, making home wherever he lay his Stetson, issuing Another Ten Songs whenever more had been meticulously crafted?
As it happens, Cohen’s grossly unfortunate financial downfall – a former manager embezzled away millions that still haven’t been recouped – has been his adoring audience’s gain, and ultimately his own as well. We devotees have enjoyed multiple opportunities (three shows at Nokia in all, plus his captivating Coachella set in 2009) to finally hear some of the most carefully nuanced, distinctively detailed and richly thought-provoking songs ever written, sung by their strangely magnetic poet/composer.
Cohen, on the other hand, has had his coffers restored for doing something the firmly un-nostalgic man from Montreal might otherwise not have considered: capping his legacy with one masterful, career-spanning performance after another, each epic in length and well worth however many hundreds of dollars it cost to get in. (And man, you should’ve seen the lines at the merchandise stands. I picked up a $20 program myself.)
Monday night’s reappearance was no less riveting or generous. His exceptional nine-member ensemble (more on them in a bit) strolled out at 8 sharp, with Cohen, still spry at 78, trotting out behind them, dapper as ever in a black suit and bolo tie, doffing his hat for deeply gracious bows to his musicians when they expertly soloed.
The first set comprised a dozen songs in 80 minutes, including a well-grouped trio of gems from his current acclaimed album, Old Ideas, plus a reprise of at least the last third of “The Future,” the second selection of the night, once its seer realized a good portion of the crowd was still fumbling about in the dark trying to find their spots. (“Will you turn on the lights and let people get to their seats?” he calmly asked his lighting engineer. “I’m sorry, folks, that we started on time.”)
Indeed, the sense that his entire show hadn’t been fully savored by everyone seemed to stick with Cohen, as during the second half, after a 30-minute intermission, he opted to interrupt the usual flow from a rakishly seductive “I’m Your Man” to another robust reading of “Hallelujah” by revisiting his opening number in full. Some of the crowd was elated by that, and personally I get a buzz over such spontaneity, particularly when it’s so thoughtfully done. But the downside of that, as the show rolled “right to the edge of curfew,” was a trimming of a potential third encore that he’s offered elsewhere on this just-begun North American leg, sometimes concluded with a version of the Drifters’ Pomus & Shuman standard “Save the Last Dance for Me.”
Not to sound greedy about a guy who serves up twice as much music in a single night as blowhards half his age, but I wish I would have seen that one, too. But then I also wish I could watch that first set all over again.
Like I said, I was certain this wouldn’t be as magical, or at least that’s what I kept telling myself, perhaps because the first time was such a transcendent experience – instantly among my Top 5 concert moments – that I didn’t want to raise expectations only to be letdown. Lo and behold, I merely created a different self-fulfilling prophecy: Once the first set immediately felt like a replay (because it kinda was, and then again it wasn’t), I felt Cohen’s grip on my attention slip slightly, enough that I could now see the subtle plotting of the performance – how mostly planned poses accompany occasional improvised ones, for instance.
I also realized he’s still telling variations on the same joke. “We began this tour four years ago,” he noted. “I was 74 – just a kid with a crazy dream.” Hey, if B.B. King at 87 can be forgiven 15 minutes of predictable bawdy banter at every show, then we should overlook Cohen at 78 not coming up with a fresh one-liner.
Leonard Cohen, in one of many moments when he knelt to sing at Nokia, faces off with guitarist Javier Mas
during ‘Dance Me to the End of Love.’ Photo: Kelly A. Swift, for the Register. Click the pic for more.
Yet I was nonetheless too distracted by the carbon-copying of the first portion Monday night to be aware just how moving, say, this gig’s rendition of “Bird on the Wire” was. “Everybody Knows” seemed a bit more spiteful and vitriolic, a welcome mood-enhancer on the eve of presidential election, but I still couldn’t shake the feeling that this would be a marvelously long night filled with more of the same.
I finally locked into the performance as the new material (“Darkness,” “Amen,” the soothing “Come Healing”) wound down and key wizened pieces began to surface. The conclusion of “In My Secret Life,” co-written by superb support vocalist and longtime collaborator Sharon Robinson, put the vise back on my brain: “Looked through the paper / Makes you want to cry / Nobody cares if the people / Live or die / And the dealer wants you thinkin’ / That it’s either black or white / Thank God it’s not that simple / In my secret life.”
All motion seemed to stop after that as Cohen recited his rewritten take on “A Thousand Kisses Deep,” the meditative yet slyly clever version found on his sterling Live in London set, increasingly poignant as years pass. And as the bell-ringing of “Anthem” was bridged into the second half by the witticisms of “Tower of Song” and the everlasting allure of “Suzanne,” I was once again transfixed, glued to every gravelly utterance, marveling at how he caresses certain phrases to glean new resonance while bearing down harder on others for emphasis or jazzily dancing around still more probing lines for elliptical effect.
You know, like Dylan does, only you can actually understand what’s being said and sung.
“Let me lie on the breast of your melodies,” he asked of his backing singers (including the enchanting Webb Sisters, Charley and Hattie) as “Tower of Song” drifted into the ether. Clearly the audience was seeking the same comfort from Cohen and his players, who provided cloud-like pillows for us to laze upon, lost in thought amid music that defines sublime, produced by unerring aces playing at a permanent hush.
Violinist Alexandru Bublitchi conjured gorgeous solos for several songs, especially “Suzanne” and “The Guests.” Keyboardist Neil Larsen and guitarist Mitch Watkins (once of Lyle Lovett’s Large Band) were subdued commanders of ambiance, bluesy and noir for the Tom Waitsian “Anyhow” but rightly steeped in Americana filigree for “Democracy” and “Heart with No Companion.” All the while, drummer Rafael Gayol and longtime Cohen musical director Roscoe Beck on bass anchored everything with aplomb, smartly sinking into the background while precisely keeping pace. Last but far from least, the fretwork of the virtuoso Javier Mas was simply stunning, astonishing in its dexterous fluidity, breathtaking in its lyricism.
And at the center of it all, the wordsmith “born with the gift of a golden voice,” regaling us with seductive tales and wry observations. I didn’t think it could be magical twice, but by the time he was wrenching out more combustible passion for “So Long, Marianne” and seething animosity for “First We Take Manhattan” than he had brought to anything that preceded those pieces, it was clear this performance had been something special.
He hopes this isn’t the end – “I want to start smoking when I make it to 80.”
“But if this should not come to pass,” he added, sonorously yet sweetly, “and we do not meet again, I promise you tonight we’ll give you everything we’ve got.” And then some, it turned out.
Set list: Leonard Cohen at Nokia Theatre, Los Angeles, Nov. 5, 2012
First set: Dance Me to the End of Love / The Future (plus a reprise of the final verses) / Bird on the Wire / Everybody Knows / Who by Fire / Darkness / Amen / Come Healing / In My Secret Life / A Thousand Kisses Deep (recitation) / Waiting for the Miracle / Anthem
Second set: Tower of Song / Suzanne / The Guests / Anyhow / Heart with No Companion / Democracy / Coming Back to You (sung by the Webb Sisters) / Alexandra Leaving (sung by Sharon Robinson) / I’m Your Man / Dance Me to the End of Leave (repeated in full) / Hallelujah / Take This Waltz
First encore: So Long, Marianne / First We Take Manhattan
Second encore: Famous Blue Raincoat / Going Home / Closing Time