Leonard Cohen review, O2 Arena, London - 14 November 2008
Have you ever seen Annie Hall? If yes, then you'll recall the scene where Alvy dates a music journalist played by Shelley Duvall and they emerge from a Stones concert, Duvall's character rhapsodising about how the gig was 'transplendent'. Well before you go any further, I should confess: that was me, after witnessing the legend that is Leonard Cohen in London.
After a hellish journey from Oxford to London and then to North Greenwich, we found ourselves slightly late, hungry and cranky. Now anyone who knows me will testify to my horrendous hunger grumps. So it's no mean feat that three hours later, I was in seventh heaven. Like Leonard advised, we forgot the past and were transported to another place by a performance which is best described as sublime.
Dressed in a pin-striped suit and rakishly tilted fedora, Cohen looked ice cool. He and his band gave the appearance of a thirties era group of gangsters, their iconic appearance matched in panache by a set in which it was clear Cohen meant every word of his poetic and mystical lyrics. A magnificent "Hallelujah" was a case in point.
The laughter lines around his eyes may have belied his 73 years, but the way he skipped on and offstage, teasing us with yet another encore, hinted that he took a youthful glee in the pleasure he generated in the adoring crowd. Cohen acknowledged his absence from the touring circuit with his usual charm and a humorous eloquence: 'It's been a long time', he admitted, following this with a wry, 'fifteen years, I was just a kid with a crazy dream'.
This self-awareness and gentle humour inflected Cohen's every gesture with a disarming humility and grace, which was evident in the generous relationship he shared with his band. Collaborator and singer in her own right Sharon Robertson was given solo duties on "Anthem", showcasing a seemingly effortless and creamy, fulsome voice. Cohen also afforded backing vocalists The Webb Sisters a spot, with Hattie on harp adding an angelic quality to harmonies evocative of Alison Krauss or the Carter Family. Cohen stood back in the shadows for their stints, literally taking his hat off to them and holding it to his heart in a respectful and gentlemanly manner which indicated he was as beguiled by their performances as the rest of us.
Cohen's entire band were nothing short of flawless, and in the cavernous and corporate space that is the O2 the entire audience were drawn like magnets to the stage, spellbound by a set both flawless and utterly soulful - we could have been in an intimate and cosy jazz bar, such was the way Cohen held us in the palm of his hands. He's a legend without even trying: dapper and iconic, his words and his philosophy get right to the heart of the human condition.
Given his advanced years and godfather like status in the annals of music, never more have lines such as 'I was born like this, I had no choice/I was born with the gift of a golden voice' and 'I ache in the places I used to play' seemed more pertinent and moving. It was an inescapable fact that we were in the presence of a true legend on Friday night and there was thankfully no sense of it being underwhelming, as so often the case with such feted figures - I feel genuinely honoured to have witnessed the man himself. Cohen proved an inspiring and elegant presence whose lyrics are an honest and, I would argue, necessary soundtrack to the revolutions of life in all it's permutations. As he recited some of his poetry, I reflected that his words give no trite answers, but great comfort and hope.
I've never understood why people find the work of this wonderful man depressing; I see hope more than anything else in lyrics like 'There is a crack, a crack in everything/That's how the light gets in'. A rousing rendition of "Democracy" in the encore sums this up - both timely in the wake of the American Democrats victory as well as impassioned, it stirred the whole audience up irrespective of nationality. The beauty of Cohen's songs are that they implore us to strive beyond the mundane towards a spiritual otherness much, much greater than the physical, whilst still embodying a deeply sensual quality. Seeing him live really encapsulated this power- as I looked around my companions I saw the same rapt expression in their eyes accompanied with a irresistible urge to sway and move in time with the movement of the music, mouthing the words to classics like "So Long Marianne" and "The Tower of Song" as if motivated by a deep collective unconscious.
Cohen's performance was both gracious and professional; his deliciously rumbly voice has acquired an even greater patina of wisdom as he's aged which made some tracks seem like sermons from a great sage. Highlights for me were the elegiac and tragical "The Partisan", "In My Secret Life" and of course, "Hallelujah", which moved me to tears - I'm sure I wasn’t the only one.
A septuagenarian who still has the capacity to totally seduce both men and women with his song, he is truly a very special individual whom I still keep pinching myself to believe I've seen! What most impressed itself on me was how at peace with himself Cohen seemed; he joked that he'd explored the philosophy of religions and tried 'prozac, effexor ... ' and all number of medications, but found that 'cheerfulness kept breaking through'!
He may have been talked into doing this tour, but he genuinely seemed to be enjoying it and in the unlikely event that any remaining dates are not already sold out, I would urge you to get along to a gig, whatever it takes (yes, even if that means leaving the country - he's that good). Seeing Leonard Cohen was a life-defining experience and I don't care how much hyperbole I've employed in this review - I will never forget the three hours of magic he gave to me.
Transplendent, just transplendent.
Leonard Cohen on amazon.com
Leonard Cohen Official Website
By: Lindsey Davis
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