He still has it. In the third of his four shows performed at Toronto’s Sony Centre, the legendary Leonard Cohen, still quite spry at 73, delivered a powerhouse evening of entertainment, backed by six stupendous musicians and three sublime vocalists, including Sharon Robinson, his collaborator and co-writer on his 2001 album Ten New Songs.
Attired in a nifty black double-breasted suit, blue shirt and jaunty fedora, Cohen, still the icon of cool, belied his age for most of the evening, and ranged confidently from the early classic songs of the 1960s and ’70s, such as Suzanne, Bird on the Wire and Who By Fire (inspired by a prayer said on Yom Kippur) to his equally strong and memorable fare from the late ’80s and ’90s, including Democracy, I’m Your Man, First We Take Manhattan and Everybody Knows. (Tellingly, he didn’t bother with any tracks from Dear Heather, his forgettable and bland 2004 album, and only picked the best songs – Boogie Street, In My Secret Life – from his middling 2001 album, Ten New Songs, though his stark, spoken word recitation of A Thousand Kisses Deep, from that same album, was one of the evening’s highlights.)
The sold-out Sony Centre audience, most in their 40s and 50s but with a fair number of thirty- and twentysomethings, too, couldn’t have been more rapt. This was a veritable concert love-in, with women screaming out their love for Cohen before songs and men thanking him for being, well, Leonard.
And Cohen reciprocated in kind, pronouncing himself “deeply grateful” to his fans for the “interest” they’d shown over the years in his career. This wasn’t false modesty, nor was his supreme generosity to his co-performers an affectation.
In my experience, and I’ve been to my share of concerts over the years, the backup musicians and singers usually get thanked once before the encore(s), but Cohen started to thank them a few songs in and never stopped doing so throughout the evening; they must have been lauded a half dozen times each, which is simply unprecedented.
As for the music, it soared, whether it was Cohen singing Hallelujah with almost religious fervour, his voice seemingly rising to the heavens, or his quiet rendition of Suzanne, which has to be one of the most beautiful, heartbreaking songs ever written in the English language.
Other tunes were more prescient then they’d ever been before. Listening to Cohen’s majestic turn on Democracy and its complex lyrics, “It’s coming to America first, the cradle of the best and the worst/ It’s here they got the range and the machinery for change, and it’s here they got the spiritual thirst,” I couldn’t help thinking of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama and the possibility that he may actually herald the positive revolutionary change that Cohen is singing about.
But it wasn’t all serious stuff. Cohen literally jumped around the stage during his rousing barn-burner Closing Time and jokingly made reference to his last tour, way back in 1993, when he was, as he put it with a wry smile, “a 60-year-old kid with a crazy dream.”
Watching Cohen during the long evening – which, including his two sets and three encores, added up to a remarkable 21/2 hours of performance – you could believe that he might actually have trouble believing that he’s so loved and so successful. He is, though, and that he’s ascended to this career peak, including his recent induction into the U.S. Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, with such class and panache, only goes to show that the good guys sometimes do get the adulation and honour that they deserve.