LIVE: Leonard Cohen Brings The Chicago Theatre To Life
By Marty Sartini Garner; Photo: M.J. Kim, Dustin Rabin on March 14, 2013
The Chicago Theatre
March 13, 2012
You’ve heard that he’s spry, probably, even lively--Mr. Leonard Cohen of Montreal, age 78, who since returning to the road several years ago continues to appear regularly on stages around the world and so continues to elicit a kind of awe and reverence that goes far beyond what we’re typically called to give to our resurrected pop singers. In fact, Cohen has at this point gone beyond that area reserved for Springsteen, Dylan, Neil Young, et. al., musicians whose continually expanding legend and legacy inflates their present. Not to take anything away from any of those artists--I’ve dribbled many a tear while whoa-ho-hoing along with The Boss--but what Leonard Cohen does live almost doesn’t even bear the comparison; twenty or so minutes in to his three-hour-plus show at the Chicago Theatre on Wednesday night, as he knelt like a supplicant among the floodlights and crooned “Bird on a Wire,” what was happening on stage felt as much like a demonstration, an unfolding, a confession.
Musicians don’t make themselves this way anymore, if indeed they ever did. He’s no precious flower--“I stumbled out of bed this morning and made my way to the mirror, where I saw my usual doleful expression, and I said to myself, ‘Lighten up, Cohen,’” he joked at one point--but self-effacement is to him a way to obliterate the walls of rapturous reception and expectation the audience carries in with them; irony, far from being something to hide behind, is something he uses to bring other people closer to himself. It’s strange, and disarming, and it’s the one thing even more surprising than the sight of Cohen bounding--literally bounding, in the way that a bunny bounds--on to and off of the stage between set breaks. There’s nothing to be ashamed of here: not of failure, not of religion, not of sex, not even of musicianship. Cohen stood there, hat in hand, in rapt attention as guitarist Javier Mas meandered around his fretboard for three or four minutes before finally giving away the opening notes of “Who By Fire,” and as he did so it didn’t feel gross or weird or uncomfortable that Mas is so apparently talented and so willing to show it. It felt incredible, because it’s incredible to see a virtuoso at work. For the duration of the set, it was as if punk never happened; it was as if it was never needed.
That’s all good and fine for those who need Leonard Cohen’s existence to mean something bigger than it probably should or does, you might say, but what about the rest of us? For the rest of us, he played the hits. He did “Hallelujah,” and they flooded the room with light to encourage everyone to sing along. He played the jaw-harp for “Democracy” while red, white, and blue lights spilled over the stage dressing. He did “Suzanne,” and he did the guitar parts on his own for that one, with a pair of orange lights casting large shadows on the room’s back wall. He made a joke about the papal conclave--or, rather, he made a joke about himself, his failure to become pope this time around yet another disappointment in a life full of disappointments within and without. He let the Webb Sisters sing “If It Be Your Will.” He recited the poem “A Thousand Kisses Deep,” purred it, really, getting laughs for the jokes and for the rest a silence so reverent that it seemed to take on its own inaudible sound or quality. He tickled out a few keyboards lines in “Tower of Song” and got the expected cheers at the reference to his own “golden voice.”
Because more than anything, it’s that voice that makes his songs his. Grit, bass, and time intermixed, tempered (when he wants it to be) by a charming nasality. Johnny Cash’s larynx covered in a better suit. The voice makes those songs not only believable, but generous, even when what he has to say is backed by pain and suffering and the consequences of his own terrible actions. And so he let “A Thousand Kisses Deep” drift into “Anthem,” with that ineffable chorus that can’t really be reduced to lines on a page, and his mouth was so close to the mic, he himself so close to the performance, that you could hear the smack of his lips moving over his gums when he opened his mouth to sing. And he sounded alive.