Leonard Cohen leaves his heart in Austin, Texas.
Despite his heritage as a French-Canadian, Leonard Cohen’s first of two sold-out concerts at the Long Center in downtown Austin, Texas felt like a homecoming. Cohen clearly has a great affinity for Austin. He has always worked with Austin musicians, and even dedicated the concert to the memory of two local musicians with whom he toured and recorded. The crowd had Austin native Roscoe Beck, Cohen’s current bassist and musical director, to thank for Cohen’s choice to open up his US tour in the Texas capital.
So how does rock’s angst-ridden poet laureate–once described as the most depressing man in show business-come out onto an American stage for the first time in 15 years? Skipping! Donning a fedora and gray pin-stripped suit, Cohen skipped onto stage while his nine-piece band (complete with three female vocalists) played the first bars of “Dance Me to the End of Love.” Cohen bent down on one knee and delivered the first lines to the footlights.
Second was the up tempo title song from 1992’s “The Future.” Never before has a 73 year-old man so convincingly delivered the line, “Give me crack and careless sex/take the only tree that’s left and stuff it up the hole in your culture.” The song came complete with acrobatics. When Cohen sang the line “and the white girls dancing” backing singers the Webb sisters did cartwheels across the stage, as Leonard flashed a grin that seemed to say “Thank Adonai for Viagra.”
While it was a greatest hits show, the concert never felt nostalgic. Cohen unfolded each song with a passion that gave the audience the sense of hearing the songs for the first time. Cohen’s more recent material maintained all its poetry while losing some of the horrifically dated synthesized production that plagued his records during the Eighties and Nineties. Guitarist Javier Mas from Barcelona stole the show with his extraordinary Spanish guitar playing as well as his mastery of the laud, bandurra, and mandolin-giving the band an indescribably timeless quality. Except for the opening song of the second set, “Tower of Song” (which saw Cohen man a keyboard drum loop by himself!), the show was surprisingly synth-free.
Although renowned as the sultan of sorrow in popular music, Cohen showcased his keen sense of humor all night. Before he introducing a song Cohen remarked, “The last time I played a concert in Austin was fifteen years ago. I was sixty at the time. Just a kid with a crazy dream.”
The night had an uncontested air of magic about it, the audience enraptured with every song. Halfway through the first set in the silence before the next song a woman from the balcony yelled “I love you, Leonard!” Cohen looked up grinning-not breaking pace and script he immediately played the chords to the next song and sang the first line to 1967’s “That’s No Way to Say Goodbye”: “I loved you in the morning/ Our kisses sweet and new,” as if it had all been planned.
And most if had been planned. Every move was obviously scripted and every song, story, and funny one-liner had been done all over the world, but it never once felt forced. Cohen seemed to be genuinely humbled and emotional each time he removed his fedora and bowed to the audience’s rapturous applause. Never once did Cohen seem, as so many other performers often do, like he was going through the motions.
Cohen performed with a vitality that is rarely seen today. While the show didn’t have the athleticism of an E Street Band performance, it did have the length. Clocking in just shy of three and a half hours, albeit with a twenty-minute intermission, Cohen showed no signs of slowing down, playing classic after classic. The most poignant moment in the concert came at the very end after (count ‘em) FIVE encores. The band, crew (also wearing ties and fedoras), and staff all came out and sang the hymn “Whither Thou Goest” while Cohen offered up a benediction:
“I don’t know when we’ll meet again. Until then, take care of
yourselves. May you fall on the side of luck. May you be surrounded
by friends and family. And if none of these is yours, may the
blessings find you in your solitude. Thank you so much friends,
A performance of understated grandeur and spectacle, Leonard Cohen reminded us that even n a post-Elvis musical culture, where the sexiest, loudest, and brightest is best, a couple of lights and a whisper can still bring the house down. Hallelujah!
Dance Me to the End of Love
Ain’t No Cure for Love
Bird on the Wire
In My Secret Life
Who By Fire
Hey That’s No Way to Say Goodbye
Tower of Song
The Gypsy’s Wife
I’m Your Man
A Thousand Kisses Deep (recitation)
Take This Waltz
So Long Marianne
First We Take Manhattan
Famous Blue Raincoat
If It Be Your Will
I Tried to Leave You
Whither Thou Goest