Tuesday, June 03, 2008

an evening with Leonard Cohen

There were a few hours last night where I couldn't imagine being any happier. I was sitting in the middle of more than 2,000 people at Kitchener Centre on the Square, soaking in the raspy, growly, sultry voice of Leonard Cohen.

I hadn't been quite sure what to expect for what was billed as 'An evening with Leonard Cohen'. The man is in his 70s and this tour seems to have been fueled more by financial necessity than artistic passion. But if I had been expecting a performance that showcased his talents as a musician, poet and artist, that was backed up by fabulous musicians, and whose poetic poignancy brought tears to my eyes - I wouldn't have been disappointed.

He didn't need anyone to warm up the stage for him. There was no opening act or long, instrumental introduction. As the musicians took the stage, a slim, spry, man jogged to the centre, swept his hat off his grey head and bowed to an audience that leapt to its collective feet.

He said a few words, but seemed eager to start playing and rolled into 'Coming Back to You' then upped the tempo with 'The Future'... and then for the next three hours - including several generous encores - he swept through his repertoire, bringing us old favourites like 'Closing Time' or 'Suzanne', less-familiar tunes like 'The Gypsy's Wife', and some of his recent collaborations with Sharon Robinson like 'Boogie Street' from Ten New Songs.

Here I should say something about his tour band - for he certainly kept drawing our attention to them, sharing the credit. I had the feeling each member of the band could have put on a stellar solo show - like flamenco-style, bandurria-playing Javier Mas, the eclectically talented Dino Soldo or the beautiful vocalists Robinson and, as Cohen said, "the sublime Webb sisters". All together, they created this wide, full sound that swelled around the old man's gravelly voice.

When he sang "I was born with the gift of a golden voice" (Tower of Song), the audience laughed and applauded loudly. 'Golden' isn't quite the adjective most people would use. But what he lacks in vocal range, he more than makes up for with words.

In fact, when he sang 'Hallelujah' - perhaps one of his most covered songs - I was reminded what he has that the other don't. Rufus Wainwright and k.d. lang may be able to make their voices soar when they sing these achingly beautiful lyrics, but ultimately those lyrics are his. And last night he sang another, last verse I've never heard and it was like pulling back the curtain to reveal the master puppeteer.

His words, his lyrics, have a power that was tangible last night. Sure, we loved the melodies, the instrumental accompaniment - but it's his words that really move us. He might be grey-haired and aged, but when he sang 'if you want a lover' (I'm your man), women screamed and cheered to let him know that given the chance, many of us would gladly take him for a ride, walk with him a mile, or let him examine every inch of us.

I could go on about this. I'm still going over it in my head. But perhaps it might be best to let him have the last words. These are the words of what is one of my most favourite songs, words I often ground myself with - and when he sang them last night I felt so incredibly blessed to hear him sing them live.

Ring the bells that still can ring
forget your perfect offering
there is a crack, a crack in everything
that's how the light gets in

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