Review: Leonard Cohen; April 7, 2009 at Copley Symphony Hall; San Diego

Leonard Cohen

The setting at the Copley Symphony Hall is not unlike Leonard Cohen himself. With its stained-glass windows and walls of intricately sculpted marble, the building seems as though it should house sermons rather than symphonies. But at the center of the basilican architecture lies the stage itself, lit in smokey reds and swanky purples that would feel more at home in a brothel than a cathedral. The juxtaposition of the sacred and the profane has long been a tenet of Cohen’s distinguished career, which has been as defined by prayer songs like “If It Be Your Will” as it has by the lurid recounting of trysts with Janis Joplin.

With no fewer than four live albums to his credit, Cohen’s concert prowess shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. But the man is 74 years old, and many artists see their abilities fade long before reaching septuagenarian status. Luckily, Cohen proved a terrific exception to that rule, with the richness of his inimitably bassy vocals unscathed by the passage of time. Opening with “Dance Me to the End of Love”, Cohen dutifully worked his way through a set that showcased the highlights of his formidable discography. In fact, the set was identical to the track list from the newly released Live In London, which allows that album to double as a perfect souvenir for the show’s attendees.

Leonard Cohen

While songs from his latter albums were reproduced faithfully, those from the early, baritone era of Cohen’s career were updated with his present-day subterranean crooning. The results were mixed: “Bird On A Wire” benefitted from his hushed, confessional delivery, but “Suzanne” and “So Long Marianne” were lent an ominous undertone by the deep rumblings of Cohen’s voice that diminished the underlying sweetness that has made the songs so enduring.

Throughout the set, the ever-humble singer graciously removed his hat, bowed his head, and turned the spotlight over to the members of his flawless nine-piece backing band, clearly reveling in their talent. The versatile musicians added refreshing touches to Cohen’s classics, including Flamenco guitar riffs, powerful saxophone and harmonica leads, and Neil Larson’s masterful keyboard work. Joining longtime Cohen-collaborator Sharon Robinson on backing vocals were sisters Hattie and Charley Webb, and together the three women complimented Cohen’s gruff vocals with their lush, beautiful harmonies.

It is difficult to pick out highlights from a twenty-six song set that contained the best songs from an unparalleled career, but perhaps the finest moment of the evening was the performance of “Hallelujah”. Though it has been covered over 180 times by various artists, Cohen proved himself the song’s one true master, as he and his band nailed the epic’s minor falls and major lifts with a grace that was nothing short of transcendent.

Providing a sharp contrast to the often pitch-black poetry of his lyrics, Cohen grinned and joked around with the crowd. “The last time I was on this stage was fourteen or fifteen years ago,” he deadpanned. “I was sixty then, just a kid with a crazy dream.” Possessing more energy than men half his age, Cohen happily bounded about the stage. The Webb sisters even joined in on the act, ending one song by simultaneously backflipping off the stage. Breaking only for a short intermission, Cohen and his band treated the audience to an incredible three-hour set, and, when they finally finished their seven song encore, Cohen looked as though he could play for another three hours.

Leonard Cohen

After receiving what must have been their twelfth standing ovation of the night, Cohen and company finally departed the stage, but the excitement in the crowd remained palpable. While other musicians of his stature might have been content to merely spin their wheels or coast on their reputation, Cohen and his band had delivered a performance of awe-inspiring skill and energy. Wrapping up the set with “I Tried To Leave You”, Cohen winked as he sang the lyric “I hope you’re satisfied”, directing the line toward the audience. The resounding, thunderous response that erupted from the crowd left no room for any doubt.

Watch “Suzanne” from Live in London:

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