Cohen Finds Sex, Salvation, Vigor on Tour: Jeremy Gerard

The vast expanse of Radio City Music Hall’s stage didn’t stop Leonard Cohen, 78, from running or skipping on and off Saturday night as his Old Ideas World Tour returned to New York.

No pyrotechnics or aerobic dancers pulled the spotlight from the main event. Only Cohen himself in dark suit, string tie and fedora. And his world-weary, sex-and-spirit-obsessed songs.

With 6,000 seats, the plush Art Deco auditorium, which was packed with fans and selling the few remaining tickets for $250 apiece, is relatively intimate compared to most of the arenas this tour continues playing through September.

Between skips, the spry (I use the term ironically) Cohen spent a remarkable amount of time on his knees in front of his band, delivering his lyrics like so many prayers, not all of them aimed heavenward. His baritone has grown richer and deeper over the years, limning the songs’ pungent yearnings with the patina of experience and of a life fully if sometimes painfully lived.

The concerts are pegged to his powerful and self-deprecating “Old Ideas” album, but they serve as a catalogue raisonne. The set list covers familiar touchstones from “Suzanne” and “Dance Me to the End of Love” through the excoriating 1990s “Democracy” and, from the new album, the cheeky “Going Home.”

Holy Rollers

And, of course “Hallelujah,” a song so over-appropriated by other stars (not to mention holy rollers, earnest rabbis and preachers, wedding bands and “American Idol” wannabes) that it inspired a serious book about its impact.

Cohen sneaks “Hallelujah” in late during the second half of the three-hours-and-forty-minutes concert. He reclaims it as his own, with a stripped-down version (no soaring chorus here) in which he stresses “you,” not “ya,’” in the lyric:

“Maybe there’s a God above/But all I’ve ever learned from love/Was how to shoot at someone who outdrew you...”

It’s subtly defiant, as if to renounce that illicit rhyme with the song’s title word. Take that, K.D. Lang and all ya’ countless others.

Hats off (as Cohen’s frequently is, in displays of gratitude) to the spectacular band and vocal trio of Sharon Robinson and sisters Charley and Hattie Webb.

When you wondered how much longer he could possibly go on, Cohen answered with six encores.

“I promise you that we’ll give you everything we’ve got,” he’d said at the outset. They did.

Leonard Cohen’s “Old Ideas World Tour” continues in Canada throughout April; in Paris on June 18, London on June 21 and other European cities through September. Information: http://www.leonardcohen.com. Rating: *****.

What the Stars Mean:
*****  Fantastic
****   Excellent
***    Good
**     So-So
*      Poor
(No stars) Avoid

(Jeremy Gerard is the chief U.S. drama critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Muse highlights include Elin McCoy on wine, Jeffrey Burke on books and Warwick Thompson on London theater.

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