Leonard Cohen: the master showman

Nov 26, 2013

Leonard Cohen’s ability to make every show feel special is part of his ingenuity, writes Raymond Gill, who attended his Melbourne show last week. His review gives a taste of what’s in store when the veteran singer and poet brings his tour to Adelaide next month.

When purple lights slowly illuminated the stage and the silhouette of Leonard Cohen skipped into view at Melbourne’s Rod Laver Arena, the hushed and reverent atmosphere was reminiscent of an Easter Vigil or a midnight mass. Well, a mass held in a venue which last time you were here saw Federer demolishing Djokovic.

But Cohen – a Canadian Jew — elicits Old Testament awe even in this soulless stadium. It was filled with the converted whose appetite for his quasi-religious narratives infused with urbane sorrows remains undimmed no matter how many times you’ve heard “Hallelujah”. Redemption, justice, repentance, angels and the summoning of God are standard riffs in Cohen’s lyrical repertoire, and they reach dizzying spiritual heights through the power and familiarity of his resonant voice.

The first half of his first Melbourne show saw seamless transitions between songs – and after decades of performing them, almost all are embedded in our psyches. But in the second half of his three-hour show, he conversed with his mostly middle-aged audience. He frequently laughed about his age, and chastised the audience for cheering his childlike performance on the keyboard: “What is this? Charity for the aged?”

All the greats were included, such as “So Long Marianne”, “Suzanne” and a mischievously demonic “I’m Your Man”, but one of the highlights was his effortlessly spoken “A Thousand Kisses Deep”. It emphasised that for Cohen, the word has never been subservient to the musical note.

The craggy face and slow enunciation of his words combined with the potent story-telling of his still-hip songs makes him, at times, a blending of Clint Eastwood and Nick Cave, though occasionally his broad-brimmed black hat and proclamations of death and revenge summoned the malevolent visage of Walter White’s Heisenberg. Cohen’s simultaneous summoning of age and youth, experience, questing, spiritual observations and sexual references combine to give the songs the hypnotic familiarity of hymns composed in the sordid corridors of the Chelsea Hotel.

He is compelling to watch, even with the standard and somewhat minimal range of moves as he drops to his knees, doffs his hat, bows graciously to his three vocalists, Charley and Hattie Webb and his collaborator Sharon Robinson. His nine musicians led by Roscoe Beck are equally mesmerising and, at times, take the spotlight, including Javier Mas on guitar and Rafael Gayol on drums, who epitomise the musical direction of the show, which is unshowy and masterful. Not for Cohen the flashy video backdrops or theatrical clothes-changes of the modern pop icon. The power of his ability to communicate with his audience, as if each one of us is the only one in his temple, makes all trickery redundant.

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Cohen either loves to perform at 79 years of age, or he is a master thespian. The three encores, including Robinson’s stunning rendition of Alexandra Leaving, appeared entirely enjoyable to him and they certainly were to his audience. They leapt to their feet over and over. Anyone who has seen Cohen more than once knows that the ability to make every show feel special is part of his ingenuity. Even knowing that last time he made the same jaunty salute to the audience as he skipped off stage for the final time only enhances the pleasure of knowing that the poet who pines, rejoices, forgives and damns with the most intimate vocabulary is ultimately a highly skilled and knowing showman.

Leonard Cohen plays at the Adelaide Entertainment Centre on December 11.

This article was first published on Crikey’s Daily Review.


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