Still Our Man: A Review of Leonard Cohen in Concert
18 November 2008, Royal Albert Hall, London
By Adam Mizler
The Royal Albert Hall. It’s Tuesday 18th November 2008 and it’s just gone 8.00 p.m. The house lights dim. The stage is lit a passionate red. The band come out on stage and take their positions, pick up their instruments. From left to right, they are as follows: Javier Mas on 12 string guitar, sitting at the front; behind him, Dino Soldo on virtually every kind of wind instrument imaginable; in the centre, raised on a perch, Rafael Gayol on drums; next to him Neil Larson on keyboards; in front of him, musical director Roscoe Beck on bass and, lined up at the very front, the vocalists: Sharon Robinson and Hattie and Charley Webb.
A moment later, he comes out: Leonard Cohen. Sporting a grey fedora hat, in a tailored suit, shirt and tie, looking dapper, youthful and spritely, he sprints on to the stage to a whirlwind of applause, and the band strike up the first number, Dance Me To The End Of Love. And Cohen begins to sing, clasping the microphone close to his lips, as if to make sure that not a single word escapes, in that deep, familiar, world-weary voice: “Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin/ Dance me through the panic till I’m gathered safely in…” The audience sat in rapt attention.
And that was just the first number.
Scarcely pausing to catch a breath, they launch in to a rendition of The Future, perhaps Cohen’s most overtly doom-and-gloom-laden song. But he sings it with passion, his eyes closed, fist clenched, as if at that moment in touch with something deeper. All to the steady beat of the drums, courtesy of drummer Rafael Gayol. Cohen seems to particularly relish the lines in the song “You don’t know me from the wind, you never will, you never did/ I’m the little Jew who wrote the Bible”. Indeed, Biblical references abound in his work. In an interview for the recent documentary ‘Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man’, he spoke about how his first exposure to poetry was in the liturgy in the synagogue when he was growing up in Montreal. His voice in this song, which was written back in the early nineties, is full of power, carrying the lyrics right to the very back of the hall – and to the very back of the soul.
The song finishes, and again, without more than a moment’s pause, the band is off again, with the third number There Ain’t No Cure For Love. Cohen’s voice these days has a gravitas that makes it clear to all that this is a man who knows what he’s talking about. With his eyes closed, his body and thoughts seem to be reaching for some elusive muse – and connecting with it.
The fourth number is Bird On The Wire, which gets an instant applause before Cohen has finished singing the first line. Then, something curious happens – unlike anything in the concert thus far – when he sings the refrain “If I have been unkind, I hope you can just let it go by…” his voice has become once again the voice of his younger self, higher, clearer, as if the years had been peeled back, revealing the Leonard Cohen as he was some forty years ago. The song got a rapturous applause, and rightly so.
Everybody Knows is next, played on a 12 string guitar by Spanish maestro Javier Mas, with the band in the background. Throughout the evening, during the songs, the audience was pin-drop respectful. The lyrics ruled the evening. And Cohen sang them in this song, shoulders hunched forward, knees slightly bent, microphone cupped to his mouth, with a raw energy that belied his 74 years.
Next up, In my Secret Life. Cohen’s face was filled with the angst and yearning and loss of the lyrics. He sings it with his is knees were pressed together, legs bent, again hunched forward. It’s a song about many things, but the echoes of regret seem to have a particular poignancy now.
Javier Mas then provided a beautiful long intro on his 12 string to the next song, with everyone trying to guess what it would be. The answer came, to the delight of everyone, in the form of Who by Fire, a song which Cohen states in the liner notes to his Greatest Hits album as being “based on a prayer recited on the day of atonement”. There was applause even before the end of the first line. Cohen was playing guitar on this one, his eyes open, staring dead ahead, the intensity of the lyrics matched by the intensity of his gaze.
Then it was on to the Chelsea Hotel No.2, the eighth song of the first set. Again, Cohen found his younger voice in this song, mixing it with his now customary deep tones. In a gentlemanly gesture, he tipped his hat to the audience at the end of the song, which again drew a hearty and appreciative applause.
Javier Mas started strumming again, with the opening strains of Hey That’s No Way to Say Goodbye, and Cohen came in with those famous opening lines “I loved you in the morning/ Our kisses deep and warm/ Your hair upon the pillow/ Like a sleepy golden storm…”. As the song progressed, with Cohen again hitting that youthful register, the bitter-sweetness of the words was palpable. The tune was rounded off by a harmonica solo from Dino Soldo.
Then, Cohen picked up the microphone, stepped centre stage, and addressed the audience. He thanked everyone for being there, and he sincerely meant it. “The last time I was here,” he said, “was about 14 or 15 years ago. I was 60 years old then…just a kid with a crazy dream”. That brought the house down with laughter, Cohen relishing every moment of it. Then, tongue planted firmly in cheek, he continued: “Since then I’ve taken a lot of Prozac…” Again, a roar of laughter, and Cohen proceeded to name a dozen licit (and illicit) stimulants and anti-depressants that he claimed to have taken, as well as “studying the religions of the world”. Then he paused, before carrying on with a twinkle in his eye: “But I had to give up the medication and the religion…because cheerfulness kept breaking through”. That did it. The audience were gone with mirth.
He then spoke about how glad he was to be back in “this noble place”, and how, with “so much of the world plunged into chaos” it was necessary “to ring the bells that still can ring” and he recited the first verse of his song Anthem, ending with the lines “There is a crack in everything/ That’s how the light gets in”, and the band struck up for a beautiful, moving and hope-filled rendition of Anthem. If The Future is Cohen at his bleakest, then Anthem must surely be him at his most hopeful. Both songs come from the same album, but could not be more different. As the band played on, he introduced each member, bowing for the longest moment to each person. Then, with a hoppety skip, he left the stage.
And that was the end of the first half.
The fifteen minute interval flew past. The second set started with Cohen on stage with Charley and Hattie Webb. Cohen walked over to a small, basic, 1980’s electric keyboard. “I don’t know whether you will have seen one of these before,” he said to the audience, gesturing to the piece of antiquated technology in front of him, “it’s pretty sophisticated”. Then, he switched on the keyboard, and the familiar strains of Tower of Song rang out. “Well my friends are gone, and my hair is grey/ I ache in the places where I used to play/ And I’m crazy for love/ But I’m not comin’ on/ I’m just payin’ my rent everyday in the Tower of Song”. Cohen’s anthem to ageing could have been a lament about getting old, in the way W.B.Yeats might have written, but instead the song is peppered with wry humour, and not a shred of self pity. He had his hand on his heart as he sang, and there was applause on the line “I was born with the gift of a golden voice”. The keyboard kept up with the rhythm, the words faded, but the Webb sisters kept singing the melody line. Cohen turns to them “Don’t stop,” he says, smiling, “Please don’t stop…ignore the enticement…” gestures with his eyes at us, the audience, “…this cheerful soundtrack to my shabby life…this is as good as it gets…” laughter and applause as the song finishes.
The other musicians come back on stage, Cohen picks up his guitar, and they are into Suzanne, Cohen standing like a true troubadour, singing of that enchanting “half crazy” woman, the “lady of the harbour”. There was a very loud applause at the end of this one.
Javier Mas started up on a Spanish guitar, playing a long solo introduction, before being joined for The Gypsy's Wife, a song of loss and lament, given sombre treatment with a jazzy flair. Then, the pace picked up for The Partisan. Even up-tempo, it lost none of its bleakness, nor was the power of the lyrics diminished – there was a palpable chill the went through the audience on the lines “An old woman gave us shelter, kept us hidden in the garret/ Then the soldiers came/She died without a whisper…” underscored by the Spanish guitar, sending a shiver down the spine. Cohen sang, biting back the emotion, Javier Mas seemingly playing for dear life as the song about loss and death unfolded.
Sharon Robinson gave a solo performance next: Boogie Street, her voice exquisite, earthy, as Cohen gently sang with her. There was a look of humility on his face, not pride, humility, as he watched his collaborator and co-writer interpret the song.
Then he sang it. He knelt down on one knee and he sang it, fist clenched, the 12 string guitar in the background. Hallelujah.
“I heard there was a secret chord
That David played and it pleased the Lord
But you don’t really care for music, do you?”
The power of the song was undeniable, fusing aspects of the renditions by Rufus Wainwright and Jeff Buckley with Cohen’s deep, rich and mellowed voice, and I am not ashamed to say it brought a tear to my eye on the lines “Maybe there’s a God above/ But all I ever learned from love/ Was how to shoot at someone who outdrew you…” Cohen’s face was wrapped seemingly in anguish at this point, feeling the pain and anguish of the Hallelujah. Then he sang the verse:
“People, I’ve been here before
I know this room, I’ve walked this floor,
I used to live alone before I know you,
But I’ve seen your flag on the Marble Arch
Love is not a victory march
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah…”
The words took on new life. Yes, he has been here before, this place, this stage, this floor, and a little over a mile away is the real Marble Arch. This was a passionate Hallelujah, with its mixed up biblical references, from King David to Bathsheba to Sampson and Delilah, they were all there, all present, all correct. To hear this song live is to experience the power, the immediacy of it, and to be moved by it. There was a tear in my eye at the end of it as well. And the finale was met with delighted applause for this, the Song of Songs in the Cohen canon of work.
I’m Your Man was up next. There were catcalls from several women in the audience when Cohen sang “If you want a doctor, I’ll examine every inch of you…”. The song was bold and contrite, just as it should be. And for me, took on an extra special meaning at the lines “If you want a boxer, I’ll step in to the ring for you”. What Cohen may not have known is that the Albert Hall used to host boxing matches. And what Cohen could not have possibly known is that my great-uncle Harry Mizler fought there one night in 1934, when he became the British lightweight champion, taking the title away from Johnny Cuthbert after 15 rounds.
There was a poem next, Cohen alone on stage, a riff on A Thousand Kisses Deep. Cohen recited the words to this “riddle in the book of love” with stark simplicity, the words literally speaking for themselves. One verse in particular struck me:
“I loved you when you opened
Like a lily to the heat.
I’m just another snowman,
Standing in the rain and sleet,
Who loved you with his frozen love
His second-hand physique,
With all he is and all he was
A thousand kisses deep”
W.B.Yeats could not have done better.
Then, Take This Waltz, during which song Cohen sang simultaneously to and with each of his backing vocalists: “Take this waltz, that’s all there is…” In fact, as the entire audience knew, there was so much more. He named the musicians once more, bowed to each in turn…then turned to the audience, saying “Thank you, friends” before skipping off the stage to ecstatic applause. It had been a 10 song second set, and what a set it had been. Just time for an encore.
And there was. Cohen skipped back on stage, and started singing “Won’t you come over to the window my little darling…” and let rip into So Long, Marianne, his voice youthful and powerful. It was the perfect ending to the evening.
Only that wasn’t the end.
A split second pause was all there was before First We Take Manhattan rocked the building. Cohen was off-stage, and on again (to standing ovation) to sing a mournful rendition of Famous Blue Raincoat, appropriately drenched in deep blue lighting. There was still a raw emotion at the line “And you treated her to a flake of your life”, the line was bitter, but beautiful. The song is signed off: “sincerely, L.Cohen”. And it was truly, definitely, sincere.
That would have been enough, a fitting note to end on, a literal signing off. But Cohen kept going. He recited the first lines of If It Be Your Will as a piece of poetry, before handing over the reigns to the Webb sisters, Charley on guitar, Hattie on harp, their soft voices perfect for this song. And then came the line “And end this night, if it be your will”. It was not our will that the night should end, but, as the old saying goes, all good things must come to an end. And so must the show.
But there was another encore to come: Democracy, with its “staggering account of the sermon on the mount” and its optimistic, loud and strong refrain: “Sail on ship of State” and the ubiquitous “Democracy is coming to the USA”. Barely two weeks after an historic US election that saw the first African-American elected to that country’s highest office, this song resonated with everyone. Not long ago this song would have been seen as an ironic anachronism. Now, it’s on the mark, and full of hope.
Cohen seemed to be getting younger by the minute, and Democracy would have been a great high to end the night’s proceedings. But Cohen was in full swing, and sang I tried to leave you – he had – he had tried to leave us, five times before, and this was his sixth encore.
As the song finished, the music kept going as Cohen again addressed the audience: “So many people keep this show afloat,” he said as picked out members of the team. Then, a final word of parting: “Good evening, be well, be lucky, may blessings find you in your solitude. Thank you and God bless”.
And he was gone. To a massive standing ovation that raised the roof of the Royal Albert Hall.
What a night. What a show. And what humility, grace and dignity. The Rolling Stones get older, Mick Jagger can still just about strut his stuff on stage, but he’s past his prime. Johnny Rotten now does TV adverts for British butter – how the mighty are fallen. Those performers, along with a host of others, have not aged well: their halcyon days are behind them, and there is no prospect of recapturing that doomed youth. Jagger can strut all he likes during a Stones concert. But it’s to no avail.
Not so with Leonard Cohen. Age has not diminished him. On the contrary, it has enhanced him. That was abundantly clear from his performance that night. By the end, he seemed almost rejuvenated. The healing power of that music perhaps…? I wouldn’t be surprised. And nothing about his performance seemed forced or stale. God knows how many concerts he must have done on his European tour (and apparently extra dates are being added all the time). The performances that night, all of them, were fresh and full of life. Perhaps it’s a testament to the material they were working with, those songs, those wonderful poems and songs: songs of love, songs of hate, songs of remorse and regret, songs of hope and despair, of partisans roaming the hills of war-torn France and baffled biblical kings searching for that elusive secret chord – and, of course, a wry tune about growing old in the Tower of Song.
It’s comforting to know that Cohen is still singing to us sweetly from that window in the Tower of Song (and hopefully will be for a good while yet) and, after all these years, and all these songs, he is still our man. For that, I for one am thankful.
Ring the bells that still can ring.