12/13/2010

Leonard Cohen: A Philosopher and a Gentleman

When my wife and I heard that Leonard Cohen was bringing his ongoing tour of the world to the Theater of the Clouds at the Rose Garden in Portland, Oregon, we knew, without any doubt, that we had to be there. We both agreed that we should not allow ourselves to miss an opportunity to see a performance by someone who is widely, and deservedly, considered to be a living legend. (After all, there are so few living legends around these days.)

Only Leonard Cohen can do what Leonard Cohen has been regularly doing since the late 1960s. At seventy-six, he has grown old graciously, while attaining a rare stature as a performer. When the poet, novelist, songwriter, and singer from Montreal, Canada, appeared in Portland on December 8, 2010, he occupied the center of the stage in a manner that was austere and dignified, displaying a quiet stateliness that well befitted his longtime standing as both a musical philosopher and a worldly-wise gentleman. He stepped directly into the spotlight without any hint of showiness, wearing a dark suit and a fedora that was pulled down on his forehead, and went straight into "Dance Me to the End of Love."

Song after song followed during the first half of the lengthy concert, with a number of his most well-known compositions being heard, including "The Future," "Ain't No Cure for Love," "Bird on the Wire," "Everybody Knows," "Who by Fire," "Democracy," and his famously indiscreet song about the late Janis Joplin, "Chelsea Hotel #2." The first half of the show concluded with one of his best songs, "Anthem," in which he solemnly intoned his resigned outlook on a broken world by singing, in a dour voice that has been made richly expressive by age and experience, these insightful lines: "Ring the bells that still can ring/Forget your perfect offering/There is a crack in everything/That's how the light gets in."

"Tower of Song" began the second half, a rueful song in which Leonard Cohen wryly invoked the name of Hank Williams, the ill-fated star of country music. Next came a heartfelt rendering of "Suzanne," one of the earliest, and certainly one of the most hauntingly beautiful, of the many songs that Leonard Cohen has written. Also included, among others, in the second half and during several encores were "Sisters of Mercy," "The Gypsy's Wife," "Hallelujah," "I'm Your Man," "Take This Waltz," "So Long, Marianne," "First We Take Manhattan," "Famous Blue Raincoat," "Closing Time," and "If It Be Your Will" (performed by The Webb Sisters, two of the three singers who backed him). He also recited one his poems, "A Thousand Kisses Deep."

Leonard Cohen maintained his poise and earnestness throughout a performance that smoothly unfolded over nearly four hours. (It could be argued, perhaps, that it was a welcome case of being given a little too much of an undeniably good thing.) He paused only a few times to speak, briefly and humbly, to the audience. The sizable band behind him, which comprised six musicians and three singers, was outstanding in every way, lending distinct elements of depth and shading to each song. From beginning to end, it was a graceful evening of profound excellence.