Oppressed by the figures of beauty

The problem I’ve had with Leonard Cohen is that his songs were always been part of the background buzz of my life but never made it front and centre. My fault, really, for not exploring this Canadian poet-musician’s oeuvre, which now spans more than four decades of recordings. So it was with more than a little naiveté about what to expect that I accompanied Liz to the Sydney Entertainment Centre on Thursday night.
What became apparent from the opening songs was that this was a “contractual obligations” show of the best kind. Cohen’s financial problems may have driven him to tour for the first time in 15 years, but he and his coterie brought artistry, intelligence and emotional depth to almost three hours of a seemingly bottomless back catalogue.
His voice now a trademark growling baritone, his 75 year old frame betraying both frailty and the lightest of steps, and his selection of overachieving back-up singers and musicians each getting their own chance to shine, Cohen’s performance transcended any of the diverse phases his career had passed through. The 60s folk was suffused with delicate Latin flavours, the 80s synth-pop modernised with an appropriately live disco feel and his more recent work in tandem with female singers brought to life with polite yet powerful duets.
That’s not to say it all worked all of the time. The dark impact of “Everybody Knows”, for example, was undermined by its transformation into an altogether too chirpy midtempo Latino-inflected country chugger. And the first half of the show had too many moments where retro musical choices were reminiscent of the cheesiest of 70s and 80s pop–in contrast to the thoughtful, impassioned and articulate vocal delivery.
The set list and arrangements, while meticulously constructed with musical director Roscoe Beck, had enough room to provide moments of surprise and spontaneity. Early on Cohen allowed his voice and hunched form to be dominated by proscenium and band, but he slowly emerged to project himself and steal attention from the mise-en-scene. And then, with grace and feeling he handed it back to them. It was fantastic to see Sharon Robinson, one of his key songwriting collaborators from the 80s on, sharing the stage and even belting out “Boogie Street” on her own. And flamenco guitarist Javier Mas delivered a series of spellbinding solos, as well as bouncing off Cohen’s narrative journeys, the best of a terrific ensemble.

From the dramatic aural sweep of “The Partisan”, to the hauntingly erotic spoken word of “A Thousand Kisses Deep”, to the slamming kick drum of the politically-charged “First We Take Manhattan” the pieces fell into place. Appropriately, the second encore ended with “Closing Time” but only for a brief pause and then “I Tried To Leave You” really did mean it was time to shut up shop… the gracious rapture of the audience drawing real warmth from Cohen.

If any one song encapsulates the best of the night it would be the gospel-flavoured (Hammond included!) rendition of “Hallelujah”. At first seemingly light in tone, the intensity of Cohen’s voice rose with each chorus to the song’s crescendo and a deserved mid-set standing ovation. Famously covered by a man many decades younger (though now gone) the song was teased by its owner rather than throttled, yet for an effect just as lyrical and enthralling.

I’m naive no longer.

Songlist @ Sydney Entertainment Centre, 29.1.09

Dance Me To The End Of Love
The Future
There Ain’t No Cure
Bird On The Wire
Everybody Knows
In My Secret Life
(Spanish guitar solo)
Who By Fire
Chelsea Hotel #2
Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye
Sisters Of Mercy
Anthem

Tower Of Song
Suzanne
The Gypsy’s Wife
The Partisan
Boogie Street
Hallelujah
I’m Your Man
A Thousand Kisses Deep
Take This Waltz

So Long, Marianne
First We Take Manhattan

Famous Blue Raincoat
If It Be Your Will
Closing Time

I Tried To Leave You

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