Published Wed, Nov 04, 2009 08:28 AM
Cohen comes alive
David Menconi - Staff writer
DURHAM -- As instruments of doom go, Leonard Cohen's voice is sort of like anesthesia. You'll be coasting along, basking in his mellow croon and letting it wash over you. Then a trance takes over about the time he drops one of his wicked kill-shot lines on you -- "You told me again you preferred handsome men/But for me you'd make an exception," say -- and the next think you know, you're waking up wondering just what happened. And if you think that sounds at all unpleasant, then you weren't at Cohen's Tuesday night show at Durham Performing Arts Center.
Cohen's voice is an admittedly acquired taste, of course, and it's not one that has gotten much airplay in America over the years. And yet his songs have been in the air so much that you probably know more of them than you realize. Tuesday's show featured 27 songs, including most of the Cohen canon high points that the crowd had come to hear. The standing ovations began before he'd even sung a note. Then again, he rocks a dark suit and fedora so well, he deserved the cheers just for walking onstage.
Cohen is 75 years old and he collapsed during a show in Spain back in September. But you'd never have known that from Tuesday's performance. He was spry from start to finish, sometimes singing from a knee for dramatic emphasis. By the end of the night, he was literally dancing his way off the stage.
"I don't know when we'll pass this way again," he announced early on. "But it is our intent to give you everything we got."
For this tour, Cohen has assembled a crack nine-piece band littered with virtuosos. They supplied sleek, exceedingly well-played jazz-flavored rock that wouldn't have sounded out of place on a Steely Dan record. During each player's star turn, Cohen would stand off to the side, hat in hand, attentively watching and listening.
Guitarist Javier Mas was particularly impressive on banduria, laud, archilaud and 12-string guitar, providing exotic counterpoint to Cohen's lyricism. But the entire ensemble was terrific, and there was even a spot of choreography. When Cohen sang the line "Like girls dancin'" on "The Future," backup singers Charley and Hattie Webb did a quick cartwheel in unison.
But of course, there was no upstaging The Voice. When he reached down to the lower reaches of his range to intone "the wisdom of oooooold" during "In My Secret Life," he sounded like a true force of nature -- a foghorn warning the unwary away from the rocks of romantic desolation.
By now, Cohen is well-established as poet laureate of doomed romantics everywhere. His typical song persona is a man singing from the depths of emotional wreckage, picking through the rubble and assigning blame where it belongs -- as much to the singer as his subject. Just about every Cohen song has a cutting line that feels like an icepick to his and your heart.
Tuesday's set list was pretty close to the track list on Cohen's current "Live in London" double-album, starting with "Dance Me to the End of Love," which set a tone of old-world classiness that he maintained throughout the evening. High points included the ultra-cold "Chelsea Hotel No. 2," a steady rolling "Suzanne," "Hallelujah" with lyrics tweaked for the occasion ("I told the truth, I did not come here to Durham to fool you") and "Famous Blue Raincoat." He did two sets and multiple encores, and seemingly could have played all night.
"Good night, my darlin'," he sang on the show-closing "I Tried To Leave You" -- "I hope you're satisfied." The crowd gave a massive whoop in response.