LEONARD COHEN at the Air Canada Centre, Tuesday, December 4. Rating: NNNN
On his newest album, Old Ideas, Leonard Cohen paints himself as a "lazy bastard living in a suit," but the first of two Toronto shows at the Air Canada Centre proved the immense irony of that description. Taking the stage promptly at 8 pm clad in a black fedora and suit (that part was true), the 78-year old legend gave the audience their full money's worth - a marathon set that lasted more than three and a half hours and covered every phase of his career.
Cohen was famously forced out of retirement in 2008 when he learned that his long-time manager, Kelley Lynch, had been siphoning money from his account, leaving him with little in the way of savings. The resulting tour, his first in fifteen years, was born out of necessity, but it evidently reawakened something in Cohen, the entertainer. Relieved of his financial burden, he nevertheless performs with palpable respect for the fans that, in his words, "put [themselves] out of pocket to be here."
Where Bob Dylan's unwavering take-it-or-leave it approach to live performance can be alienating even to his most diehard fans, Cohen is extremely humble, generous and gracious. Armed with a slick team of professionals, the songwriter lets his melodies breathe with big, spacious arrangements that share the spotlight (often literally) between the players. Singer Sharon Robinson, for instance, got a chance to take the lead on Alexandra Leaving, and each player got his or her chance to shine. Cohen even took the time to mention the sound techs by name.
If the practiced smoothness of the band threatened to close the crack that lets the light in, Cohen's elegant charisma resisted. As much as he tried to shift the attention, it was Cohen himself that most charmed the rapturous audience. Whether dropping to his knees for an impassioned vocal (or a furtive glance at the lyric sheet), spryly dancing across the stage or thanking the crowd for being "very kind to an elderly chap" after they applauded his dinky Casio keyboard solo on Tower of Song, Cohen's aged grace and winking, sardonic humour showed that his personality is as enduring as his songs. His deep, evocative spoken word reading of A Thousand Kisses Deep was as captivating as anything more melodic.
But some of Leonard Cohen's songs have reached a level of ubiquity beyond him. Hallelujah, for instance, has been covered enough times to warrant an entire recent book-length study. His own rapturous performance garnered a standing ovation that bled into the next song (maybe he should have saved it for last). So Long Marianne, similarly, erupted into a communal sing-along/sway-along.
His repertoire of classics is deep enough that even after close to four hours, there were a few that went undusted. But it's hard to complain about such a mammoth, Springsteen-esque performance from a 78-year-old poet known more for his lyrics than his "gift of a golden voice".
Lazy? Not so much.