Leonard Cohen skips onto the open-air stage with a sparkle in his eyes.
The 77-year-old singer-songwriter has just spent more than two hours in the chill of the Berlin night traversing a catalog of songs steeped in sex and religion, death and depression.
It’s life-affirming. And, judging by his smile on coming back for the encore, it works wonders for Cohen too.
He’s touring in support of “Old Ideas,” released this year. The tour will grace London’s Wembley Arena for two nights this weekend. If you are in London, go. Twice.
On record, Cohen has tended toward more Spartan sounds, stripped back to just his voice and an acoustic guitar. Live, he has assembled an immaculate band. It plays with a manicured sweetness: A mandolin and violin add spice and color, a Hammond organ richness and depth. The Webb Sisters and Sharon Robinson provide luminous backing, careful arrangements making full use of each singer’s tone.
It’s a perfect backdrop for Cohen. He’s dressed in his trademark dark suit and a hat that is frequently raised to his band in thanks for good solos. His singing style is conversational, every syllable crystal clear.
His deep bass, occasional cracks rasping at the edges of its limited range, is like a prize cigar that has been out of the humidor slightly too long. If the lyrics it is used to express might well have been rolled on female thighs, it is unlikely they were those of virgins.
Cohen’s observations reveal, and often revel in, a seediness both physical and emotional. Sometimes such bleak assertions are leavened with compassion. The devastation retold in “Suzanne” is wrapped in the warmth of friendship, the tragedies of “Famous Blue Raincoat” are bathed with empathy. Both are riveting live.
At other times, Cohen deploys a sharp streak of humor. “I’m Your Man” has an easy sleaze (“And if you want a doctor, I’ll examine every inch of you”). “Take This Waltz” is a melodrama of decay. The bold assertions of fact of “My Secret Life” are gleefully twisted with doubt and wordplay. Don’t let the gloom and the deadpan delivery deceive you: At times Cohen is a funny man.
It’s even there in “Hallelujah” -- a song, at least in its opening lines, ostensibly about the writing of itself. Cursed with a multitude of cover versions, it is one of Cohen’s best-known numbers. It certainly gained the biggest applause.
The lyric is unbearable in the hands of others, bringing out their inner busker in a rash of emoting and desperate imposition of their own supposed musicality. (And yes, that includes Jeff Buckley.)
Returned to Cohen, it regains its genius. It’s delivered straight, no preening, no ostentation. Left to its own devices, and with that killer third line to deflate its pretenses (“but you don’t really care for music, do you?”) it’s once again a song you cannot live without.
Some humor crept outside the songs. Cohen is notorious for excessively thanking his band. After barely an hour onstage, he praises all and sundry, from his musical director to a guy apparently called Pants who was involved with the staging. Expressing gratitude to the audience for coming, Cohen teases with a typical end-of-show spiel placing a judicious pause between “We’ll be back” and “in a few moments for part two.”
Ninety minutes later, the disco beat of “First We Take Manhattan” kicks into the encore at the Waldbuehne, sending the crowd into raptures. Cohen well and truly took Berlin.
Leonard Cohen’s Old Ideas World Tour continues in the U.K., Ireland, Turkey, Romania, Italy and France this month. Cohen plays Spain and Portugal in October before moving to the U.S. and Canada including Los Angeles, Seattle and New York on Dec. 18 and 20. Information: http://www.leonardcohen.com/us/home
Cohen’s “Old Ideas” is on Columbia priced from about $12 in the U.S. and 9 pounds in the U.K. Download fees vary across services. For a review of the CD, click here.
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(Robert Heller is a music critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include Lewis Lapham on history, Zinta Lundborg’s New York weekend and Jeremy Gerard on Broadway.