Leonard Cohen at the Beacon Theatre
Fri Feb 20 2009
Is Leonard Cohen in it for the money? The story broke a few years back that this brooding antihero of modern song was suddenly out millions of dollars, apparently screwed by an ex-manager. He's on tour now for the first time in 15 years, and it's been said by some that he's on the road at age 74 mainly to make ends meet. At the Beacon Theatre last night—so far, the only U.S. show Cohen has booked this time around—the singer did make a passing reference to "hard times" afoot nationwide, but otherwise, there was nothing grim or perfunctory about the show. On the contrary, the three-hour-plus concert—previewed by Sophie Harris in this week's TONY—was simply one of the most gracious performances I've ever had the privilege of attending.
It was surprising, too, in many ways. On record, Cohen can seem ghostly and withdrawn, like a voice without a body. Younger listeners such as myself, who have discovered his music in the past decade or so, have gotten used to thinking of him as a rapturously gloomy force of nature rather than a living performer. So it was truly surreal to witness his ultra-expressive body language last night. As the band struck up the opening tune, "Dance Me to the End of Love," with most of the attendees still finding their seats—the mob scene outside the Beacon nearly erupted into a riot—Cohen literally bounded on stage. Within a minute, he was on his knees, belting out the song. Beaming and giving effusive thanks, the man projected the demeanor of an improbably worldly lounge singer.
A certain hamminess did pervade the show at first: For one thing, it might have been a little much to call on his female backup singers to perform cartwheels along with the line "...and the white girls dancing." But gradually, the comic aspects and the somber, reflective aspects of the show became one, and any sense of incongruity fell away. I had the sense watching the performance that previously, I had understood only one side of Cohen—namely the dark one. And this side was on splendid display during songs like "Chelsea Hotel," "Who by Fire," "Famous Blue Raincoat" and an utterly riveting near-solo rendition of "Suzanne." (Yes, all the hits were played.) Throughout the show, the singer plumbed the depths of his incredibly low voice, at one point stretching out the words cold and old until they sounded like Mongolian throat-song.
But amid the foreboding, Cohen also projected an enormously endearing humility, removing his hat and bowing to his backing musicians after each solo. (He capitalized on this by including an almost comically protracted band-introduction segment in both of the night's two sets.) And moreover, there was something of the comedian about him. As one song ended with the backup singers cooing, "Dum dum-dum-dum-dum," he pleaded with them in a mock seduction: "Don't stop.... Please—don't stop." In the middle of the first set, he paused for a speech, in which he drolly catalogued the mood-lifting drugs he'd employed in the last several years: "Prozac, Paxil, Ritalin...," and so forth, all the way down to Extra-Strength Tylenol. Coming back onstage after intermission, he made a goofy production of firing up a chintzy synthesized beat on his keyboard.
In the second set, the show's various moods all seemed totally integrated. The gritty Western tale of "The Partisan" alongside the black-comic "First We Take Manhattan"; the urban cool of "Boogie Street" (with stirring lead vocals by Cohen's writing partner, Sharon Robinson) and the erotic lyricism of the spoken-word feature "A Thousand Kisses Deep." Topping it all off was the exalted mood of "Hallelujah," featuring a suitably heavenly white lighting scheme—when Cohen knelt this time, it seemed glorious rather than cheesy. At the end of the set (after placing special emphasis on the line "Here's a man still working for your smile" and thanking the audience for the umpteenth time), the man whom so many view as a prophet of misery left the stage in an unlikely way: skipping like an overjoyed child.