More than 15 years have passed since Leonard Cohen last graced a British stage, but the 73-year-old poet-turned-crooner was on suave form at the start of a four-night stint at the Manchester International Festival last night.
Dressed in the full Guys and Dolls outfit of grey fedora and outsized double-breasted suit, he looked frail, but performed for more than two hours with wit, humility and twinkle-eyed charm.
Exuding all the unruffled poise of the maitre d’ at the world’s most understated kosher restaurant, Cohen made no mention during the show of the dramatic financial crisis which necessitated this unexpected return to live performance. In 2006, he won a civil lawsuit against his former manager and ex-lover Kelley Lynch after millions of dollars went missing from his retirement fund, leaving him virtually penniless. Which helps explain the eye-watering ticket prices for this tour, at least.
Cohen is sometimes called the Canadian Bob Dylan, and both mixed in the same bohemian-aristo circles in 1960s New York. But unlike Dylan, the singer’s high standing among fans, critics and musicians rests largely on his latterday output. It was not until the 1980s that Cohen began his second-act transition from florid acoustic troubadour to funny, bass-baritone cabaret crooner.
The majority of last night’s set drew on these last two decades, with Cohen teasing bleak ironies from apocalyptic chansons including I’m Your Man, Everybody Knows, and The Future. Backed by six musicians and three backing singers, the settings were mostly fusions of jazz, gospel and cabaret with vaguely Eastern European textures supplied by exotic instruments including the bandurria and archilaud.
Cohen has been a depressive for much of his career, but he insists the dark clouds have lifted. He certainly leavened his Manchester performance with immense humour and carefully rehearsed quips. Leonard Cohen is the Samuel Beckett of pop. His financial misfortunes have been a windfall for the rest of us. On this kind of grand autumnal form, he should tour every year.
Tour dates: Manchester Opera House until June 20; Glastonbury Festival, June 29; Edinburgh Castle, July 16; London O2 Arena, July 17.
Does Leonard Cohen want to be here? It looks like it, actually. It's been well-documented that he believes fraud has eroded his pension fund, to the point that getting out on the road is his most viable way of making a fast living.
There was no sense of a grudge here, though, or of an artist hauling himself across the stage to pay the bills. Whether Manchester International Festival has benefited from his circumstances in luring the 73-year-old Canadian across the Atlantic to play this four-night midsummer residency is irrelevant. The presence of an icon like this is simply a major cultural event in any city's calendar.
Regardless of how he came to be before us, Cohen looks assured about the situation. "It's been 15 years since I stood up on a stage," he says, reminding his audience of how privileged they are. "Fourteen, 15 years ago when I was 60 – a young kid with a crazy dream – then I took a lot of Prozac." He reels off a list of other prescription mood enhancers that he has sampled. "I studied all the religions of the world too, but cheerfulness kept breaking through." Laughter and cheers follow, and he soaks them up. Yes, Cohen – the godfather of miserablism – looks happy to be with us.
He also looks not nearly all of his years. In a tailored dark suit, a grey shirt and a steel-coloured fedora with a black ribbon, he carries himself with the smooth style and dignity of a jazz player in Fifties Manhattan. When he sings, his knees knock together, he cringes in the spotlight, his mic is pinched in white-knuckled fists. Cohen might have been a crooner, had he not been blessed with the baritone that's his and his alone.
Even each frequent between-song comment and introduction for a member of his six-piece band, or three-strong chorus, is enunciated with a voice rich in drama and gravitas. And to hear him sing is still an experience to truly make young women and romantics shiver and sweat.
That voice is as rich and sexual as it was 40 years ago, and its tonal imperfections are only an enhancement. "I was born with a gift of a golden voice," runs the line in Tower of Song, and knowing cheers greet it.
The show is three hours long, including interval, but Cohen breezes through just about every song of note his career has contained, with the begrudging exception of Chelsea Hotel No 2. Who By Fire features an extended flamenco guitar introduction, one of many instrumental flourishes throughout, like the guitar lines in Bird On A Wire which cause Cohen to respectfully clutch his hat to his chest like the last mourner at a graveside. Spines tingle through Suzanne and Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye, and Hallelujah commands a standing ovation.
The encores begin with So Long, Marianne and includes If It Be Your Will, begun as one of a handful of tender spoken-word passages, and continued by Cohen's backing singers, the Webb Sisters and alongside his long-time collaborator Sharon Robinson. He pauses to thank them, his band and us, "my friends", over all three of his returns to the stage. He is received every time with wild and deserved adoration.
In 2005, the great Canadian singer and songwriter became aware that his manager had made off with £5 million from his retirement fund, and quickly realised that he needed to do something to make up the shortfall.
Well, Cohen's loss is our gain, because his first show on British soil in 15 years was immaculate, beautiful, exquisite. Dressed in a double-breasted suit and fedora, Cohen followed his band onstage and was greeted with a standing ovation before he had even said or sang a word. Then, having thanked us for our kindness, he quickly dispelled any fears about the condition of his voice in the first bars of the opening song, Dance Me To The End Of Love: never the most wide-ranging of instruments, it's now drier than desert parchment, but rich, rumbling, and more resonant than ever.
Manchester has struck gold by persuading Cohen to play four nights in the city's slightly tatty but cosy opera house in a series of four shows which are acting as "trailblazers" for next year's Manchester International Festival; it's hard to see how his subsequent dates in London, Edinburgh and at summer festivals will match this one for warmth and intimacy.
Cohen is renowned as a singer of bleak and mournful ballads - he once joked that his albums should come with a free razor blade - here what came across was the humour of the man: it was there in his wry smile, in his knowing twinkle, even in the way he held himself. Talking about the last time he toured Britain, when he was almost 60, he said: "I was just a kid with a crazy dream."
The evening's songs were drown mostly from the latter part of Cohen's 40-year career - The Future, In My Secret Life, Anthem - but there was the occasional trip back into classic Cohen territory: Bird On A Wire, Suzanne and That's No Way To Say Goodbye (the last song marred, incidentally, by the unnecessary addition of a rhythm section).
The band played with absolute restraint, the sound quality was as close to perfection as I have ever heard, and the lighting was, unusually for a pop concert, subtle and unobtrusive, reflecting the shifting moods of Cohen's music rather than drawing attention to itself.
But in the end it was all about this small and slightly frail-looking man, one of the giants of popular song, who had the audience in his grip for the best part of three hours. If I had to choose my top moments from this near-flawless show, I'd choose two: Suzanne, with Cohen on guitar, supported by backing vocalists and keyboard, seemingly going into a trance as he entered into the serene beauty of the song; and Hallelujah, in which his body trembled and he clutched the microphone tightly as he really, really sang those scriptural-sexual-poetic lyrics. At the end he took his hat off, held it to his chest, blinked and smiled the smile of a contented man.
When announcing a tour it is not usually the done thing to mention financial incentives. The Rolling Stones, for example, try to give the impression that they would be happy to play for nothing more than travel expenses and a hot meal.
The primary motivation behind Leonard Cohen's return to the stage after 15 years, however, is unashamedly pecuniary.
His former manager Kelley Lynch siphoned off $5m from his retirement fund - money that, despite Cohen winning a civil suit, she shows no inclination to pay back. And so, arguably the greatest songwriter of his era has had to gird his 73-year-old loins for a lengthy tour of Europe and Canada.
It is a dreadful business, but fans who had given up hope of ever seeing Cohen in action again could be forgiven for feeling guiltily grateful to Lynch.
Fortunately, Cohen does not seem in the least bit reluctant. He wears his age well. He was already 33, and a published novelist, when he released his debut album in 1967, so his songwriting persona was careworn and battle scarred from the off.
Tonight, in his suit and hat, he resembles a senior 1920s mobster, only with a guitar instead of a tommy gun.
When he and his similarly attired band open with the Italian-flavoured Dance Me to the End of Love, we could almost be at a mafia wedding. The hat is gracefully doffed to acknowledge applause.
Cohen's baritone has become deeper and more formidable over the years; the line in Tower of Song - "I was born with the gift of a golden voice" - prompts a wave of knowing laughter and applause. The golden voice now resembles a boulder rolling down a tunnel: something huge and elemental.
Older songs such as Suzanne lure him back to the upper limits of his range, but most of the material dates from after he discovered synthesizers and politics in the 80s.
The acrid, dystopian humour of The Future and First We Take Manhattan is as resonant now as it was 20 years ago, a reminder that the only people who dub Cohen depressing are those that don't get the jokes. He delivers plenty tonight, like a wry nightclub host.
"Please sit down," he says after one standing ovation. "It makes me nervous. I think you're going to leave."
Only the slightly hokey, jazz-club arrangements sometimes threaten to distract from Cohen's commanding presence - a saxophone solo is never too far away - but songwriting this good is indomitable.
Seizing his magnificent Hallelujah back from Jeff Buckley, Rufus Wainwright and dozens more, he is possessed by the words, his eyes squeezed tight, his body trembling.
After three hours, the final encore is the aptly titled I Tried to Leave You. "Goodnight my darling/ I hope you're satisfied," Cohen rumbles with a wink. "Here's a man still working for your smile."
GRACIOUS and humble are not words one often sees in the context of popular music.
But, along with a host of superlatives, they could appropriately be used of 75-year-old Leonard Cohen’s astonishing and moving return to the British stage after an absence of 15 years or so – since, as he quipped, he was “just a 60-year-old with a crazy dream”!
Many of the audience can’t have expected to ever see Cohen live again, let alone in such spry and wry form as he seeems to be these days.
Surrounded by a team of crack musicians and singers, to whom he often deferred, Cohen magisterially delivered a career-spanning set that seemed to be one highlight after another.
What was particularly striking to this long-time fan was how Cohen’s voice – never as “golden” as he ironically observed on Tower Of Song – has matured into an instrument that’s wholly appropriate for these songs.
Whilst the same could be said of some of the great bluesmen, it’s not a commonplace development in the white musical tradition.
Just about the only criticism that could feasibly be levelled against the song selection was that even in a set that, remarkably, lasted the better part of three hours, there were some classics that were missed out.
But who could quibble with a set-list that boasted such astonishing creations as The Future, Anthem, So Long Marianne and Hallejulah? I don’t mind admitting that I was close to blubbing when Cohen delivered a spoken-word version of A Thousand Kisses Deep and the version of If It Be Your Will, sung by two of his backing vocalists the Webb sisters, was simply astonishing in a night full of wonderful surprises.
These shows, trailblazers for next year’s Manchester International Festival, sold out virtually instantaneously.
But if you can possibly manage to acquire a ticket, you’d be foolish not to give yourself the chance to witness such a unique, soul-stirring event, surely destined to be remembered as one of the great shows of the year.
Leonard Cohen performed live for the first time in the UK in over 15 years last night (June 17) at Manchester Opera House. The singer, backed by a six-piece band and three backing singers, played a 24-song set that ranged across four decades of his musical output.
Looking frail but dapper in a double-breasted grey suit and fedora, and occasionally playing a black guitar, Cohen led his band through classics of like "Bird On A Wire", "Tower Of Song", "Suzanne", "So Long Marianne" and his most famous composition, "Hallelujah", on which Cohen shook with emotion.
Greeted by several standing ovations, Cohen played two sets and three encores over three hours. The 74-year-old poet had time for a few jokes, too. “Fourteen or 15 years ago, I was just a kid with a crazy dream. Since then, I’ve taken a lot of Prozac,” and went on to list half a dozen or so pharmaceuticals. He continued, “I’ve studied the religions of the world, but somehow, cheerfulness kept breaking through.”
Cohen also changed a lyric in "The Future" from “Give me crack and anal sex” to “give me crack and careless sex”, as he has done previously on the North American leg of his world tour. "A Thousand Kisses Deep" was delivered as a spoken word piece, while "Tower Of Song" and "Suzanne" were stripped-down arrangements, in contrast to the full-band treatment of the majority of the set.
After finishing his set with "Closing Time", Cohen quickly came back with "I Tried To Leave You", provoking yet another ovation.
The set list was:
1. Dance Me To The End Of Love
2. The Future
3. Ain’t No Cure For Love
4. Bird On A Wire
5. Everybody Knows
6. My Secret Life
7. Who By Fire
8. That’s No Way To Say Goodbye
1.Tower Of Song
3. The Gypsy Wife
4. Boogie Street
7. I’m Your Man
8. 1000 Kisses Deep
9. Take This Waltz
1. So Long Marianne
2. First We Take Manhattan
1. That Don’t Make It Junk
2. If It Be Your Will
3. Closing Time
The brief interruption into the city of the summer sun has passed, and the skies have greyed over, dispensing showers hither and thither. In a part of Leonard Cohen’s soul, one suspects, he is nodding with satisfaction at this development. After all, the man has spent decades carefully nurturing a melancholic reputation which makes Morrissey seem like Ainsley Harriott, but the speed at which this four night residency sold out proves that the appeal of such maudlin introspection remains strong.
Recent years have confirmed the downbeat Cohen worldview – having retreated to a Buddhist monastery for much of the nineties, the singer discovered that his manager had taken certain Buddhist views on material goods a step too far and spirited away most of his bank balance. Cohen’s recent bout of activity can, in part, be attributed to this. But as he shimmies onto the stage in the company of a nine-piece band there’s not a trace of reluctance in his demeanour, and the sold-out crowd (including Jarvis Cocker) rise to a standing ovation before the singer has uttered a note. For a 73-year-old he is looking in unfeasibly good shape. Dressed in a grey pinstripe suit which he inadequately fills, topped with a matching fedora which he will repeatedly doff respectfully throughout the evening, he resembles a Mafia Peter Cushing. The band are similarly attired in a range of elegant threads and hats – imagine that the parents of the Fun Lovin’ Criminals had formed a group.
He opens with 1984’s 'Dance Me To the End of Love', and within seconds, rather oddly, is addressing it on bended knee to his seated acoustic guitarist. His voice these days sounds like it is huskily whispering a lullaby directly into your ear from about six inches away, and makes a superb focal point.
It’s a slick, professional show and one the players are clearly relishing, not least Cohen himself, whose often overlooked humour makes for a splendid line in between-song banter. He muses on the last time he was in Manchester, guessing at around 15 years ago. “I was 60, 15 years ago,” he recalls. “Just a kid with a crazy dream…”
The simplicity of the songs, performed by that voice, is what established Cohen’s reputation, and it is something of a shame that the new arrangements have quite so much of the band on them, with the spartan elegance of the originals frequently smothered beneath layers of smooth jazz and extended solo spots. The effect over a near three-hour set becomes soporific, although the crowd – the majority of whom appear of an age to have enjoyed Cohen’s work the first time around – lap it up adoringly.
Still, to these ears the evening’s finest moments come when less is demonstrably more – 'Tower of Song' is accompanied by a simple keyboard programmed beat (and Cohen beams radiantly at the disproportionate applause which greets his rudimentary keyboard solo). '1000 Kisses Deep' is a stunningly effective, straightforward poetry recital against a vague synthesiser wash, while 'Suzanne' is the only time Cohen plays (more or less) unaccompanied but for his own acoustic guitar, and it’s the high point.
“I bid you farewell. I don’t know when I’ll be back,” he intones on 'Tower of Song', and it’s a fair point for a man well into his eighth decade, but this iconic night should remain consolation enough to his enraptured audience.
Considering the 'master of misery' Leonard Cohen is only back on the road at the age of 73 because his manager recently made off with £5m from his retirement fund, the Montrealer was in surprisingly good mood when he hit Manchester on Tuesday night for the first of four nights at the city's Opera House - his first UK concert in 15 years.
Looking dapper in a double-breasted suit and fedora, Cohen was greeted with a standing ovation before he had even sung a word. Given that he once said that his records should come with free razor blades, some of the audience seemed surprised he hadn't composed a song about his financial woes. In fact, he even cracked a joke (of sorts), saying: "It's been 15 years since I stood up on the stage. Fifteen years ago when I was 60 - a young kid with a crazy dream - then I took a lot of Prozac." Then he reeled off the names of other prescription mood-enhancers he had taken over the years, adding: "I studied all the religions of the world too, but cheerfulness kept breaking through."
The Manchester concert won him the type of plaudits he first achieved in his 1960s heyday. Both the Guardian and the Independent awarded five stars, while the Telegraph said that Cohen had "the audience in his grip for the best part of three hours". He ended aptly with his song, I Tried to Leave You: "Goodnight, my darling/I hope you're satisfied/Here's a man still working for a smile".
Alleged fraud and the recuperative powers of cheerfulness explain Leonard Cohen’s return to the stage. The fraud follows his claims in 2005 that an ex-manager emptied his retirement fund, leaving him almost penniless. At the age of 73, the “poet laureate of pessimism” must once more sing for his supper.
His first appearance on a British stage in 15 years came under the auspices of the Manchester International Festival, where he entertained an ecstatic audience with a droll, graceful show. There was no allusion to his financial crisis, nor any sign of his famously gloomy outlook. With old age has come the lifting of his lifelong depression. “Cheerfulness,” he told us with a twinkle, “can bring you through.”
Frail but dapper in a dark pinstripe suit and fedora, he resembled a boulevardier who had spent an afternoon watching pretty girls from a café. Whereas that other Jewish titan of pop, Bob Dylan, has adopted the persona of a travelling bluesman as he ages, the Montreal-born Cohen, once a notorious ladies’ man, looked like an elegant relic of the French chanson tradition. Clutching his hat modestly to his chest at each explosion of applause and truncating standing ovations with the claim that such displays made him nervous (“It makes me think you’re going to leave”), he exuded a beguiling, ironic courtliness.
The set focused on the later stages of his career, with early albums mined for the odd classic such as “Suzanne”. The backing band played with charm and swing. A Hammond organ shimmered in the mix and Javier Mas, a Spanish guitarist, plucked intricate accompaniments; the effect blended R&B and jazz with European and Jewish folk traditions.
A trio of female singers, led by Cohen’s songwriting collaborator Sharon Robinson, added a subtle backing chorus, siren voices in his tales of love and sex. Age has narrowed the range of his own vocals, and his attempts to sound impassioned, as when he exclaimed, “If I had been unkind” in “Bird on the Wire”, came out raspy. But his baritone, grizzled by cigarettes and dark humour, remains magnificently seductive, a tarry pleasure of the flesh. His final encore, a bluesy “I Tried to Leave You”, climaxed with the line “Here’s a man still working for your smile”. On record it sounds world-weary, defeated. Here, it was triumphant.
As a music fan in your mid (to late) 20s, there are certain artists who you have to accept that you're never likely to see perform live. Leonard Cohen was one of those, having not toured since the early 90s and spending much of the time in between living in isolation as a Buddhist monk. At the age of 73, he's no spring chicken either, so touring isn't a major priority for men of that certain age, all of which makes this run of shows in Manchester that much more like a very special event.
You have to hand it to the organisers of the Manchester International Festival, for pulling another rabbit out of the hat as one of their trailblazer events for next year's festival. After all this time, and with the reputation he has, Cohen could have simply showed up and it would have been worth it, as shown by the standing ovation he gets for coming onto the stage at the start, but this is far more than just an elderly man who got ripped off by his money-men heading back out to cash in on his legacy, this is a legend poking his head round the door and knocking us all dead again.
Cohen's reclusive lifestyle and the nature of his lyrics (and voice) have often had him labelled as 'miserable' or 'depressing', but there's not a bit of that on display as he cracks jokes in between songs, does a little shuffle dance at one point and generally acts like a warm and genial performer. In fact, he's almost too nice, spending a little bit too much time milking applause for the various members of his band, though they certainly deserve the praise. With gorgeous backing vocals from Sharon Robinson and The Webb Sisters, the very talented musicians give Cohen's songs the perfect accompaniment.
Of course, all of that would just be window dressing if the main man wasn't up to it, but despite his age and his lack of recent practice at performing, Cohen is on fire. From start to finish, he looks dead cool in his suit and hat, and his voice is probably as strong as it has ever been, as it has certainly been improved with the ravages of life and cigarettes. He only very rarely falters, and never holds back when a song requires him to push himself vocally, and that makes for a very impressive and powerful performance from a singer who was never blessed with a 'classic' voice.
Cohen's vocals have always been quite unique, but it's his songs that have rightly made him famous, and this tour showcases all the very best of them, from opener Dance Me To The End Of Love onwards. It would take too long to name all of the highlights, because that would actually mean describing every song he played, but all the old favourites like Bird On The Wire, Suzanne and So Long Marianne were stunning, while 'newer' classics like The Future, Anthem, Democracy and In My Secret Life were also done really well.
Perhaps his most famous song for younger generations, Hallelujah is now best known for Jeff Buckley's cover version (which is definitely better than the original), but Cohen's performance at this gig went a long way to reclaiming it for himself, taking out the slightly awkward tempo of the chorus from the studio version and just going for power and emotion, making it one of the real jaw-dropping moments of the show. Another of those was his spoken-word reading of A Thousand Kisses Deep, backed only by atmospheric keyboards, while The Webb Sisters got to showcase their gorgeous vocals when Cohen stood back and let them perform If It Be Your Will.
It's been so long since he was over here touring that it's tempting to label this a 'comeback' in the sense that Johnny Cash's 90s revival was, but that's not really accurate, because he has simply been away from the stage, rather than churning out poor quality music or coasting on his legacy. The fact that much of the setlist comes from 'recent' albums (though surprisingly none from his most recent release) shows that Leonard Cohen has never really been far from on top form, and this tour is just his way of reminding everyone that he's still around and he's still one of the best in the business.
* * * * *
An incredible evening spent in the rare presence of a true music legend, who gave his all to make it a performance to remember forever
Arriving on the stage at the Manchester Opera House for his first British dates in 15 years, Leonard Cohen immediately apologised for “putting some of you to such geographic and financial inconvenience”.
He had a point: the £75 tickets were a bit pricey, even by modern standards, and the fact that Cohen is playing only a handful of dates in Manchester, Edinburgh and London, and a headlining slot at Glastonbury, won’t have made life easy for his fans in, say, Norwich or Aberdeen.
Still, you couldn’t help feeling that the person who had probably been most inconvenienced by Leonard Cohen’s 2008 world tour was Cohen himself. After winding down his concert work in 1996, he went to live in a Zen Buddhist retreat in California for five years, but his plans to spend his old age mulling over koans and making the odd record with nubile playmates such as his latest, Anjani Thomas, had drastically to be revised in 2005, when it emerged that he had been swindled out of his $5m retirement nest egg by his former manager, Kelley Lynch.
And so it came to pass that, three years later, rock’s oldest living legend — 74 this year — has embarked on what will almost certainly be the last tour of his remarkable career.
Not that he showed any signs of frailty or ennui during last Tuesday’s three-hour show. He frequently adopted the Cohen Crouch — a crumpled, knock-kneed stance in which he appeared to be singing into his shirt. And his growl of a voice had lost none of its subterranean accuracy, pitching at depths that most people barely recognise as notes. His concern for the wellbeing of his three female backing singers — whom he sidled over to and introduced by name at every opportunity — suggested that the death of this notorious ladies’ man is still some way off. It was delightful, too, to watch Cohen basking in the adoration of the crowd, greeting their delirious applause with elaborate old-fashioned thank-yous for “your kind attention” or — even more bizarrely, given what they’d paid for their seats — “your hospitality”.
Dressed in a plain grey suit and a fedora, which he kept removing, holding to his chest or waving around to tremendous theatrical effect, Cohen led his nine-piece band through a recital of 24 of his best-known songs. They ranged evenly across his 40 years as a recording artist, from the earnest love ballads he favoured in his youth, such as That’s No Way to Say Goodbye, to the more witty and sardonic style he perfected in his later years, of which the most effective on the night was Closing Time, a faux-country evocation of a drunkenly lascivious scene in a small-town bar.
The biggest cheer of the evening was reserved for Hallelujah, the song that has become Cohen’s signature in recent years, and which topped the US iTunes chart earlier this year after it was performed by a contestants on the television talent show American Idol.
The revelation of the concert wasn’t so much the music, beautifully performed as it was by a lightly amplified band who never put a foot wrong, but the persona of the man himself. Age hasn’t so much mellowed Cohen as made him much, much funnier. It's hard to credit that this twinkly-eyed old jester, who reminded us at one point that “the last time I was here, I was just a 60-year-old kid with a crazy dream”, used, not so long ago, to be regarded as a depressive. How could we have carried on thinking such a thing about the author of this line from Democracy: “I’m stubborn as those garbage bags that time will not decay”?
Well, bin that. As Cohen returned for his third encore and launched into I Tried to Leave You, the auditorium erupted with mirth. Like all the best comics, the man who used to be mockingly referred to as “Laughing Len” kept a meticulously straight face throughout, thanked us again for our kind attention, replaced the fedora and wandered contentedly off.
I think I've seen them all now. Not one of the pantheon of towering legends has eluded me. The ones who didn't die young, anyway. Leonard Cohen has always occupied a paradoxical place in the scheme of things: the world's most overground underground singer, the most popular of the unpopular, the most mainstream of the cult, the biggest of the little guys.
Dying young, for Leonard Cohen, was not an option: he wasn't young to begin with. Already 33 when his first album came out in 1967, to the hippie generation his role was that of a wiser elder brother played by Dustin Hoffman, teaching them harsh truths about love and sex, and providing a handbook for every bedsit beatnik and boho Romeo for whom the words "We are ugly, but we have the music" provided succour. No single male's record collection in the Seventies was complete without Cohen's little boom-tish-tish, three-strums-to-the-bar confessionals, waltzes from the edge of a candlewick bedspread. Now 73, the icon of introspection is performing in the UK for the first time in well over a decade, at a trailblazer for next year's Manchester International Festival. "Back then," he jokes, "I was 60 years old, just a kid with a crazy dream." The circumstances may not be the happiest (he's reportedly been forced back on the road after being ripped off by a manager), but those of us who get to tick him off our wish list aren't complaining.
From the start of a generous three-hour set, it's clear that Cohen's reputation as a doom-monger is misplaced. Many of his songs provide their own punchlines: "I fought against the bottle/But I had to do it drunk" is a supreme opening couplet. And moments of improvised wit are never far away. "After years of searching through the mysteries," he says, while his backing singers The Webb Sisters keep the beat, "I've finally found the key: it's 'doo-dum-dum'..."
Dressed in a dapper grey suit that looks as old as he is, he sports a fedora that doubles as a prop: often, he'll wave it like he's welcoming the troops home, or clasp it to his chest like he's burying one of them. His bony white fingers gripping the microphone, he's a frail figure now. Every time he buckles his legs at a moment of drama, you worry that his knees won't straighten again. When he introduces his band (which includes a mandolin player and church organist) about 19 times too often, you wonder whether it's a senior moment.
All three phases of his career – put crassly, seduction sonneteer, political prophet and mad monk – are represented, although, give or take the candle burning on his amp (and, arguably, "Hallelujah"), his religious side is expressed in such an indirect way that one can choose to ignore it.
Leonard Cohen can believe any kind of gobbledegook in the face of death. That's his prerogative. Just as it's our prerogative to not take it seriously, nor indulge it with any longer shrift than a secretly impatient smile.
Not that he's anyone's idea of a puritan. He stops short of performing "Chelsea Hotel No 2", denying us the line "giving me head on the unmade bed, while the limousines wait in the street", but he doesn't eschew the pleasures of the flesh entirely.
His politician premonitions, chiefly from the Eighties and early Nineties, are reaping their reward now: "I have seen the future/Brother, it is murder" is chillingly accurate, as is the grimly ironic pay-off "Democracy is coming ... to the USA", and a funked-up "First We Take Manhattan" is an exhilarating revolution fantasy.
Sometimes he almost seems to be drifting off to sleep, until he opens his eyes and squints up into the spotlights, like he's looking at an aeroplane. It's understandable. During the more meandering lounge-jazz passages, time can slow to a crawl. Other times, he's exhilarating. "So Long Marianne" still swings, and he still has that deep baritone which does strange things to women, and causes envy in men. "I was born with the gift of a golden voice", he sings knowingly, to rapturous applause.
The last we hear of Leonard Cohen is, quite perfectly, the verse "Goodnight, my darling/I hope you're satisfied/Here's a man still working for your smile."
Having spent five years in a Zen Buddhist monastery, Leonard Cohen should be well versed in the Buddhist teaching of non-attachment. Tonight, on the first of a four-night run at Manchester's Opera House, the elder statesman of song certainly carries himself with the sort of grace that a spell away from the rat race often bestows. He beams with pleasure at the repeated ovations and cracks jokes when you least expect him to. One minute he is the Dalai Lama of Dour. The next he's listing half-a-dozen pharmaceuticals he's taken since his last live outing in 1993, when he was 'just a 60-year-old kid with a crazy dream'.
And yet this 73-year-old's world tour - probably, let's face it, his last - is motivated by that most profane of rewards: lucre. While he was up the mountain, Cohen's longtime associate gnawed a gaping multi-million dollar hole in Cohen's retirement fund, one that court action has so far been unable to rectify. So Cohen, in his own words, is 'back on Boogie Street', singing for his nest egg. It is awful to say it, but his loss is our gain. 'It's kind of you to come out on a school night,' he quips. He apologises for the 'financial and geographical inconvenience' and adds: 'But I didn't establish the market.' He's alluding to the diva-level ticket prices, but, playing 24 songs over three hours, the man from Montreal is easily worth a dozen Barbra Streisands, with a few Madonnas left over.
This frail, dapper gent standing on a Manchester stage in 2008 was never going to be the monochrome folk singer of the Sixties and early Seventies, all cut up about his famous blue raincoat. Since the Eighties, Cohen's arrangements have become more and more synthesised and his most recent albums positively jazzy. Tonight, all suited and hatted, his able band - bassist Roscoe Beck, organist Neil Larsen, longtime collaborator Sharon Robinson, singers Charley and Hattie Webb, guitarist Bob Metzger, drummer Rafael Gayol, Javier Mas on an assortment of stringed things, saxophonist and woodwinder Dino Soldo - look like they are playing a supper jazz gig in deepest Sicily. The superb Mas, in particular, plays a succession of smaller and smaller 12-stringed mandolins called the laud, the archilaud and the bandurria, giving many songs a Hispanic gypsy air.
But not even the unwelcome tootling of Soldo can detract from the power of the songs themselves. 'Bird on a Wire' survives the unctuous solos, while latterday songs like 'The Future', with its gospelly vocal interplays, or the superb 'Everybody Knows', are made glorious by the lushness of the band. Those longing for the literate loser with the guitar - Jarvis Cocker perhaps? He is in attendance - do get a small window into the past. 'Suzanne' is untouched, with Cohen gently plucking at a black - what else? - guitar. Backed only by three singers and his splendid organist Neil Larsen, Cohen begins his second set with 'Tower of Song', where he accompanies himself on the keyboard, getting whoops of applause for his one-fingered solo. He plays to the natural gags. 'I was born with the gift of a golden voice,' Cohen growls, even more sepulchrally than ever before, to the delight of the audience.
Although he made his songwriting name in the Sixties as the hymner of desolation, Cohen can ham it up just as well as he can wallow. He does a little 'white man' dance when the lyrics require it on 'The Future' and, after ending his encore with 'Closing Time', returns a few second later with 'I Tried to Leave You'.
All this twinkling does not detract from four decades of gravitas, however. 'Hallelujah' is his best-known song, covered by everyone from Jeff Buckley to a recent American Idol hopeful called Jason Castro. Tonight, he invests it with particular intensity, knocking his knees together, crouching down and squeezing his eyes shut in supplication. 'Who by Fire' started out as an Old Testament prayer and retains a spooky prehistoric resonance.
If this is a farewell tour in all but name, Cohen, the baggy-trousered sage descended from the mountain, has a few points to make. His political songs - 'The Future', 'Democracy', 'Everybody Knows' - are delivered with particular relish.
At the end of the first set, Cohen recounts wryly how he has spent the years studying the religions of the world, 'but cheerfulness kept breaking through'. The next song is 'Anthem', which he begins as a recital, as befits this fallen poet. It is mesmerising. The T-shirts in the foyer bear a quote from it, which goes: 'Forget your perfect offering/ There is a crack in everything/ That's how the light gets in.'
If he never passes this way again, Cohen's last teachings on human imperfection will echo for some time to come.
· Leonard Cohen plays Glastonbury 29 June, Edinburgh Castle 16 July, London's O2 Centre 17 July and the Big Chill 3 August
You know you’re a living legend when you get a standing ovation just for taking the stage.
That’s what Leonard Cohen got from his fans last night in Manchester and with two hour long sets and a six song encore to boot, he more than justified the adoration.
The six-piece backing band was smooth and sophisticated, staying the right side of tasteful lounge music thanks largely to the Spanish guitar player Javier Mas.
If that sounds slightly disrespectful, then let me hasten to say that they created the perfect platform for what was undoubtedly the star attraction of the show… Leonard Cohen’s voice.
Although he’s starting to look a little like the 73 year old man that he is, Lenny still looks great on stage. A steel grey double breasted suit and a slate grey shirt with no tie was toped off with a sharp fedora (grey of course) which made the great man look a little like a mafia don; apparently genteel on the outside but 100% killer on the inside.
And this was confirmed when he opened his mouth to sing the set opener Dance Me To The End Of Love. Quite simply Leonard Cohen’s voice is a force of supernature.
If anything, it sounds better now than it ever did. It was deep and magisterial from start to finish. You could hear every word, every syllable and every nuance and just lie back and indulge in classic song after classic song.
As well as the musicians on stage there was also a chorus of three female singers made up of Cohen’s long term collaborator Sharon Robinson and British duo The Webb Sisters.
Most of the time they provided simple, succinct, soulful backing but on a number of songs they were almost dueting with the maestro. But don’t let that make you think that Lenny was coasting. Far from it.
He gave us nearly every classic from right across his career (Famous Blue Raincoat was perhaps the most… er… famous absent song) and he proved that his songs from the 80s and 90s were as powerful as anything he ever recorded.
Second song of the night, The Future, was particularly powerful and gave Cohenites a chance to play spot the lyric change.
After a short interval the second set started with just Cohen, his backing singers and Hammond player Neil Larson giving us a wonderfully intimate version of Tower of Song which was quickly followed by Suzanne.
Then a few songs later came the one most if us had been waiting for… Hallelujah. Admittedly Leonard doesn’t have the golden voice of Jeff Buckley or Rufus Wainwright but no other version could hold a candle to the performance of this song last night.
With the stage illuminated in bright white light Cohen’s body was clenched like a gospel singer about to testify… and that’s just what he did.
Like every other classic song he played the performance brought another standing ovation and the great man seemed to be genuinely enjoying the love that was being showered on him. In fact the whole show was a complete love-in.
Lenny love us and we loved him, Lenny loved his band and introduced each of them at least 6 times. There was an almost overwhelming atmosphere of grace and gratitude.
The financial disasters which prompted Cohen to return to performing seemed almost worth it. There ain’t no cure for love like this and hallelujah for that.
This was undoubtedly our most anticipated gig of the year, not just because tickets cost a whopping £80 but also because this was our first and probably last chance to see one of the few musicians we would both call a “living legend” before he finally retires for good. From the reception that Leonard Cohen got when he bound onto the stage, it was clear that everyone else in the audience, from grandmothers to grandkids, were looking forward to it just as much, as, it seems, was Cohen himself, who looked genuinely humbled by the applause and cheers.
Our main concern for the evening was the condiditon of Cohen’s voice. On his last album, Dear Heather, it sounded shot, with most songs either spoken word or his vocals drowned out by the backing vocals. With the first line of “Dance Me To The End Of Love” our worries were assuaged, his careworn voice sounding impossibly deep and rich, and satisfyingly high in the mix.
Much of the set came from his ’80s and ’90s output, with I’m Your Man and The Future particularly well represented, the latter’s title track being an early highlight. His nine-strong backing band were all musicians of the highest quality although the arrangements erred on the side of sophisticated lounge jazz. Cohen was understandably proud of his charges and you might be forgiven for thinking that Alzheimers had set in such was the frequency with which he name-checked them. The slightest fart from Dino Soldo’s saxophone would bring on an introduction and the obligatory applause from the audience. Despite the presence of more than one too many sax solos, the band did a fine job, playing with great restraint, solos notwithstanding, and allowing Cohen to remain the centre of attention throughout. Of particular note was Javier Mas’ masterful playing all manner of acoustic stringed instruments of varying shapes and sizes.
Older songs from Cohen’s ’60s and ’70s heyday were rearranged sympathetically to retain much of their original magic. “Bird On A Wire” and “Who By Fire” were tender treats early in the set while “Suzanne” and “Sisters Of Mercy” were very close to their sparse originals with Cohen picking out melodies on his acoustic guitar, albeit with less certainty than he did forty years ago. Less successful was the arrangement for “Hey That’s No Way To Say Goodbye” which was rather heavy-handed for my liking but there was a storming version of “So Long Marianne” to make up for it.
The undisputed highlight of the evening was “Hallelujah” which saw Cohen reclaim the song for himself from the million or so cover versions out there. The superb backing vocals from long-time collaborator Sharon Robertson and the Webb Sisters, Hattie and Charley, lifted the song to stratospheric heights and prompted a prolonged standing ovation from the audience at the song’s conclusion.
Cohen himself was a delight throughout, joking with the crowd that the last time he toured he was 60-years-old, “a kid with a crazy dream”. There were wry smiles at the recital of some of the more poignant lyrics: “I was born with the gift of a golden voice” from “Tower Of Song”, played with just Cohen on synthesizer (complete with one-finger solo) and the three backing singers, brought cheers from the crowd and a self-deprecating shake of the head from the man himself - who’s he trying to kid? The cries that greeted “If you want a doctor, I’ll examine every inch of you” from “I’m Your Man” suggested that there plenty of other septuagenarians in the room who did indeed require a doctor.
Only in the encores did things begin to flag with the band introductions becoming a little tiresome during “Closing Time” and “I Tried To Leave You”. The version of “If It Be Your Will” played and sung by the Webb Sisters should really have been played during the main set, if at all, instead of the encore when the audience was crossing their fingers for the likes of “Joan Of Arc” and “Take This Longing”. Despite this we still wanted the performance to go on and on but the fourth encore, a beautiful rendition of “Famous Blue Raincoat”, was as good a place as any for Cohen to call it a night, signing off with “Sincerely, L. Cohen” before the band piped up with a brief, a capella “Wither Thou Goest?” to end a perfect evening. Gig Of The Year. So far.
This was never going to be just a concert. Communion with the man whose emotional and spiritual quests have provided the GPS mapping for more than one generation is, in fact, more of an act of worship.
Cohen entered with a six-strong band and three female singers. Hats were obligatory, and Cohen kept his dapper grey fedora in place all evening, except when doffing it with polite humility to acknowledge the applause that started as soon as he walked on, a show of gratitude for his return to the UK stage after an absence of 15 years.
The set kicked off with "Dance Me to the End of Love", with Cohen almost crouching over his hand-held microphone. All evening, he reverentially gave his attention (and constant name checks) to his fellow artists, and the deference was merited by their musicianship. Roscoe Beck takes credit for orchestrating the first-rate band, which included the guitarist Bob Metzger and the multi-instrumentalist Dino Soldo. Javier Mas spun histrionic displays on a range of stringed instruments, seated regally downstage in a plush armchair.
Female voices have always provided the perfect satin on which Cohen's vocal gravel can best be displayed. Sharon Robinson and the Webb Sisters are perfection. At one point, they transformed the penitential poetry of "If It Be Your Will" into an angelic anthem. Cohen, attentive and impressed, doffed his cap.
The 73-year-old seemed relaxed and cheery. On recent albums, his voice has become a smoky whisper, but in live performance it has the strength and energy of tours from decades past. He relished the ironic line "I was born with the gift of a golden voice" (from "Tower of Song"), and so did the audience. It wasn't the only humour on display, either. Apologising for his long absence from performance, he recalled his last tour, aged 60, when he was "just a crazy kid with a dream".
Stand-up comedy gave way to poetry, but it was the songs that made the ticket price (£75 each in the stalls) seem a small sum to pay. We got gems hewn from every stage of his career, from as far back as "Suzanne", to "First We Take Manhattan" and "Boogie Street". Delicate backdrop lighting was carefully attuned to mirror the delicacy of "Sisters of Mercy" and the passion of "Democracy".
After several encores, he gave us 1974's "I Tried to Leave You", with its parting line: "And here's a man still working for your smile." He earned a hatful.
You have to hand it to Leonard Cohen. He's 73 years old but as spritely as ever.
A week ago, I saw him live at the Manchester Opera House and it was simply sublime.
A poke in the face of all those who reckon he's just a miseryguts who can't sing.
For three hours, he held an adoring audience in the palm of his hand, treating them to a masterclass in soul singing.
Yes, that's right. I said soul singing. That's soul as in Marvin Gaye, Al Green or Otis Redding.
Leonard's a man who's seen it all; a poet, philosopher and wit.
His songs are timeless, whether they're love songs, prayers or, increasingly, political broadsides against the USA.
Packed with gags, the show was generous, humble and warm.
It was also a show that most of us thought would never happen.
Cohen has been forced out on the road due to his former manager siphoning off most of his royalties, leaving the singer without a pension.
The courts have ruled in the singer's favour but the miscreant shows no sign of paying him back.
Cohen had little choice than to go on the road and he's currently on a world tour.
His loss is our gain.
Quite upfront about his motives, he apologised for the £75 ticket price (the most I've ever paid) but we all felt like we'd done our bit for Len Aid.
Besides, £75 is a small sum considering the amount of joy he's brought into our lives.
It was Leonard Cohen who brought out the writer in me. He was the one who taught me that ladies love poets.
He showed me that you can sing about pretty much anything you want, as long as you sound like you mean it.
When I was 15 and he was 44, I thought he was God. And the fact that he seemed to have an endless supply of beautiful
women tripping him up and beating him to the floor made him all the more worth studying.
Cohen, the bedmate of the hippy chick generation, made no secret of his prowess and revelled in the reputation.
In Manchester, he mocked this past. Lines such as "I ache in the places where I used to play," from Tower Of Song were delivered with arch calculation.
Several times he tried to tell us that he's past it but I don't believe him.
Within five minutes of taking the stage, he's eyeing up the three backing singers, rubbing his knees like Vic Reeves.
There's still that twinkle in his eye.
Like the aforementioned Green and the great Cohen acolyte, Nick Cave, Len's built a song-writing career on the contradiction between Old Testament laws and the temptations of the flesh.
It's obviously served him well.
There's a world of difference between the dirty old man and the aging Romeo. Just ask any of the women at the gig who would leave their partners at home and risk it all for a night with Cohen.
I heard many of them say so while queuing for the bar.
It's also significant that many of the blokes there would probably let their partners go.
Women have an eye for these things. They know when a bloke's still got that twinkle.
It explains why many young women go "Phwoargh!" when you mention somebody you consider wrinkly and gross.
I know someone who has the hots for Andrew Lloyd Webber, a man I consider to be a minger.
Des O'Connor, the butt of so many jokes about his oily personality, still has it too.
He's married to a young 'un and recently became a dad.
Yet, you only have to see him flirting with a female co-host to realise he'd still walk away with the belle of the ball.
Des Lynam, he's another.
Not exactly in the Cohen league as regards song-writing and poetic expression, he's made a latterday career out of his suave charm.
With women, there seems to be a cutoff point, beyond which fancying them becomes pervy.
Valerie Singleton is now at that teetering point, Ann Widdicombe has passed it.
Poor Brigitte Bardot turned everybody's head in the sixties and seventies but now looks like she's chewing spanners.
Madonna, now close enough to getting the bus pass, seems to fear age's cruel indignities more than most, surrounding herself with young dancers and singers in the hope that their youth will rub off on her.
Debbie Harry, on the other hand, seems to have accepted the aging process with good grace, although someone should have a word with her stylist.
Dave Hewitt, Phillip Smith & Jarkko Arjatsalo share their amazing photos on The Leonard Cohen Files and Adrian Challis provides his excellent review of the June 17 concert.
Blog - it's all about music - "Leonard Cohen: Fan verdict" The audience was made up of all ages and reacted as one to his songs and his poetry. As I left I heard a young twenty something say to his friend "that was the best gig I have ever been to in my life". Of course it was!...
Blog - Christianity-is-not-leftwing - "Leonard Cohen." Manchester last night was simply the best concert that my wife and I have ever been to...
Blog - it's all about music - "Review: Leonard Cohen" Then a few songs later came the one most if us had been waiting for… Hallelujah. Admittedly Leonard doesn’t have the golden voice of Jeff Buckley or Rufus Wainwright but no other version could hold a candle to the performance of this song last night. With the stage illuminated in bright white light Cohen’s body was clenched like a gospel singer about to testify… and that’s just what he did...