Leonard Cohen's Old Ideas Tour
James L. Knight Center, Miami
Wednesday, March 20, 2013
Now 78, Leonard Cohen almost certainly wouldn't be pounding the tour trail, if his finances were still flush.
Circa 2004, though, fate intervened. (Or rather, a personal manager did, ripping him off to the tune of approximately $9 million over a period of years.)
And that's essentially how the Canadian Jewish Buddhist bard in a suit was forced to work the tour circuit on a full-time basis again.
Of course, Cohen, a formerly reclusive figure, might have preferred to spend his unknown number of remaining years on this strange spinning rock, sitting in peace atop a California mountain with loved ones, friends, and his own flawed self while contemplating love, death, and other Old Ideas.
But he also relishes the stage life, playing up his puckish artistic persona as a poet, prophet, and pervert for the benefit of fanatics, fellow fighters, and the gods -- not to mention himself.
So, last night in Miami at about a quarter-hour past the advertised "8 p.m. sharp show time," the theater went dark. And still. And silent. And then it erupted into a standing ovation as Cohen jogged out, clad in his signature late-life uniform of gray dress shirt, black tie, black suit, and black fedora.
He briefly tipped his head in thanks, with a wide, thin-lipped smile shining through the shadow beneath the brim of his hat. He grabbed the microphone in his right hand while curling its cord into a loop with the other. And he descended to his knees, singing, "Dance Me to the End of Love," in his infamously seductive, gravelly croon, as if it were a reverently filthy prayer.
All night, as he sang, Cohen created a ritual of genuflecting in praise of his bandmates.
He bowed before the string virtuoso Javier Mas. He was humbled by Neil Larsen, "the foremost exponent of the Hammond B3." He kneeled in honor of "our timekeeper" and drummer Rafael Gayol; "the professor" and guitarist Mitch Watkins; the master violinist Alexadriu Bublitchi; "the sublime" singing Webb sisters; "our musical director and survivor of these many campaigns" Roscoe Beck; and finally, his lovely longtime collaborator and co-writer, Sharon Robinson.
But just as often, Leonard sat crouched in the spotlight, staring off into the beyond, trying to decipher the darkness, attempting to channel its mysteries.
"We were here a few years ago," Cohen uttered in his distinct careful way, addressing the theater and referring to the Miami stop of his two-year 2008-09 world tour, which had been his first in over a decade and a half.
"And maybe we'll be here a few years hence. One never knows for sure," he joked, darkly. "But tonight, we'll give you everything we've got.
"Thank you, friends, for the warm welcome."
He glimpsed "The Future," singing a string of slightly altered lyrics, "There'll be phantoms/There'll be fires on the road/And the white girls dancing," as the Webb Sisters (but not the darker-skinned Ms. Robinson) swung their arms in a pantomime of the Mashed Potato.
He tunefully recited "Bird on the Wire" and smirkingly conceded "Everybody Knows" before removing his hat to admire a four-minute flamenco-tinged guitar interlude from Mr. Mas.
He interrogated the universe, asking "Who by Fire," while tenderly plucking at the strings of a black, full-bodied acoustic as his own enormous, double shadow loomingly shuffled across pleated 100-foot curtains.
Cohen danced amid "The Darkness," during which he performed a strange vocal trick, grumbling percussively as the drummer, "our metronome," slapped out a jazzy solo.
He was clearly enjoying himself. "Thanks so much, friends," he said. "It's a great honor to play for you." And straightening his tie, the old songman smiled again.
Despite his gloomy reputation, pitch-black sense of humor, and a death fixation that's only been exacerbated by his age, Cohen is still a charmer. There is a purity about his pessimism. And he would rather laugh in the face of the reaper than weep. And he will always repent for his sins, even if he enjoyed committing them.
Yes, he is a septuagenarian. But he remains boyish. He jokes. He teases. He self-deprecates.
"Sometimes, I struggle out of bed," he confessed last night. "And I go to the mirror and I look into that mirror and say: 'Lighten up, Cohen.'
Pausing for laughs, he continued chastising himself. "'Your struggle has been intense. But intense compared to what? When are you going to get over the fact that there ain't no cure for love?'"
Yet in spite of "struggl[ing] out of bed," Cohen slips so spritely around the stage. And he performs for hours. There is an intermission. A second act to the show. And three encores.
The old songman moves promiscuously from instrument to instrument too. He caresses the microphone with both hands, singing or whispering spiritual, sarcastic, and occasionally explicit lyrics. He fondles the guitar. He twangs the Jew's harp. He even fingers the electronic keyboard a bit.
"I'm going to fire this machine up," he warned the theater, standing behind a fine piece of Casio-like plastic gear. "Don't get alarmed. You may never have seen anything quite like it. So steel yourself."
Still, though, the main source of Cohen's own amusement and inspiration (and perhaps existential terror) is death.
Along with love, it is one of those Old Ideas that most shaped his new album -- and has always most shaped his oeuvre.
"Are you humoring me? Patronizing the elderly? Do you think that's all I can do?" he jokingly ranted in response to the theater's applause for his electronic keyboard playing, as if defending himself against some sort of judgmental higher power.
He's even rewritten the come-ons in "I'm Your Man," crooning: "I'll wear an old man's mask for you."
In a certain way, all of Cohen's routines (especially the encores) are laid out in little life-death cycles. From the lusty hymn "Hallelujah" followed by the surreal goodbye of "Take This Waltz." Or the idyllic ode "Marianne" giving way to the apocalyptic disco of "First We Take Manhattan." Or the seething domestic drama of "Famous Blue Raincoat" sweeping into the submissive spiritual "If It Be Your Will" and then the joyously apocalyptic tune "Closing Time."
As he croons on his song of the same name, it's all about "Going home/Without my sorrow/Going home/Sometime tomorrow." This "lazy bastard living in a suit ... Going home/To where it's better/Than before."
Yet every time Cohen introduces his band one last time and bids his fine audience goodnight and skips with a hand fluttering over his head, waving comically as he rushes headlong into the wings, into the darkness -- the old trickster is never gone for good.
He always seems to return for another encore.
Leonard Cohen's Setlist
-"Dance to the End of Love"
-"Bird on a Wire"
-"Who by Fire"
-"Ain't No Cure for Love"
-"Democracy Is Coming to the U.S.A."
-"A Thousand Kisses Deep"
-"Tower of Song"
-"Waiting for a Miracle"
-"Show Me the Place"
-"Lover Lover Lover"
-"Alexandra Leaving" (performed by Sharon Robinson)
-"I'm Your Man"
-"Take This Waltz"
-"So Long, Marianne"
-"First We Take Manhattan"
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-"Famous Blue Raincoat"
-"If It Be Your Will"