WORLD TOUR 2008-2009

Concerts at The Opera House
Manchester, UK, June 17-20, 2008

Review of the June 17 concert by Adrian Challis
Photos by Jarkko Arjatsalo

More photos from Manchester on the previous page

I was driving me mum back from Heathrow and listening to Radio 4 as I am wont to do, and on Front Row came an article about Leonard's first gigs in Europe for over fifteen years. Mark Lawson and the Booker winner Anne Enright had been to Dublin to see the first night of the European leg of his World tour. They were both so amazingly effusive it was infectious. Almost subliminally, Mark mentioned that Leonard was playing next in Manchester on Tuesday 17th. The rest of the drive was uneventful - I went to bed totally knackered after driving 450 miles and slept the sleep of the just...
Next morning my eyes sprang open at 7am - Uncle Leonard was playing Manchester and I knew I HAD to get a ticket! I decided, with a stomach fizzing with excitement, that if this necessitated giving ticket touts upwards of 100 then so be it - how often do these opportunities come along?! I drove back to Liverpool, and googled the gig - there were 8 - count them, EIGHT! - tickets left for that night! With booking fee and delivery to the box office, the total came to the princely sum of 81.50 - I can't say I ve ever paid anything like that for a gig... but it'd be worth it, wouldn't it? Worth it?! What price does one put on perfection? And that was indeed what it was. Manchester Opera House is a beautiful venue, and compared to other gigs Ive been to with such legends as this, a wonderfully intimate and unthreatening experience.

My ticket was for row E - five from the front! If I had been so minded, I could've hit the man in the eye with a well-aimed gob - like there was any chance of that! The band wandered on as silhouettes - a glorious red-backed lighting state to welcome the man himself. He arrived looking sprightly and dressed in a double-breasted suit and fedora - like the guest of honour at a MafiosI wedding - and went straight into Dance Me To The End Of Love, its semi-Eastern-European rhythm reinforcing the gangster impression. His voice was wine-rich and as seductive as ever, with a glint in his eye, a wry and very charming smile never far from his lips. If it were possible to fall in love with a 74 year old rake such as he, Id admit I was smitten...

So many wonderful songs ensued - The Future was next - with a strange change to the lyrics - 'Give me crack and casual sex...' - what's this Leonard? You just so utterly seduced me and now you tell me bumming's off the menu??!!! Somehow I ll survive... There Ain't No Cure For Love and Im remembering the last thing William Burroughs ever wrote in his journal - 'Love. What is it? The most natural painkiller what there is. LOVE...' Resisting an extended mental drive around the old junky's backpassages I watch a man just ten years younger than Bill when he died and marvel at his vigour... his voice has accompanied me for several decades, all of which seem to have been heading to this moment, to share his delight, to banish forever memories of despair and teenage depression... as if on queue, he begins to sing Bird On A Wire, rendering it the drunk's wobbly anthem it undoubtedly is... during all the older songs tonight, I recall very late nights sat in rented rooms smoking cigarettes and listening to Leonard, his voice the perfect accompaniment to my barely-post-adolescent sombre self-absorption. listening tonight - I mean really listening - I realise that the intervening twenty-five years have taught me what I couldn't possibly have known at the time - I have matured, have been grown by experience, and this man's words now make so much more sense, are all the more poignant than they could ever have been back then, when I knew nothing of life and the joy and pain it often brings, and makes us better for. Sobering stuff.

Next it's wry jokey Leonard - Everybody Knows. I love the album I m Your Man, marvelled on its release how cheesily modern it sounded, how at last here was proof of what I had always suspected, that Mr Cohen, despite his depressive reputation, is one of the world's great modern humorists. Even though I knew this, this song still had me laughing out loud - I had actually forgotten how funny it is: 'Everybody knows you've been discrete, but there were so many people you just had to meet without your clothes...' tell me that's not funny!
Cheeky smiles litter his delivery, again with that oh-so charming glint in his eye, at the times his eyes are not shut tight, face skyward, both hands clenching the microphone, prayer-like, testifying, that rich baritone oozing barely parodic religiosity... Leonard speaks truths only ever hinted at by religion. He is called Cohen for a reason, a name befitting the priestly class tonight at least he leads... Sharon Robinson provides perfect 'backing' vocals on all the tracks - on this one, which she co-wrote, she is sublime.

As she is on the next, In My Secret Life - it provides a slowly melting bridge to two simply astonishing songs. All of the musicians tonight are the model of understated mastery - one in particular, the multi-instrumentalist Javier Mas, provides an intricate introduction on a strange twelve-stringed guitar-lute, which Leonard's website tells me is called a bandurria, before the band break into a simply heartrending version of Who By Fire, complete with bassist and the tour's musical director Roscoe Beck performing on double bass for the only time tonight - a shame, as the sound, and his performance, are haunting.
Then another oldie - Hey That's No Way To Say Goodbye, and not for the first or last time tonight I have tears trickling down my cheeks - again, lyrics that when I first heard them couldn't possibly be as poignant as tonight - 'Many loved before us, I know that we are not new/In cities and in forests they smile like me and you/But let's not talk of love or chains/And things we can't untie...' My eyes are soft with sorrow, and not for the first time tonight I appreciate your heart needs to be broken a good few times before truth leaks out...
As if in reward, Leonard stops to talk. It's the first time he's played live in fifteen years he tells us, the last time he was in England he 'was just a sixty year old kid with a crazy dream...' his smile mirrored by two thousand mouths... 'and in that time Ive taken a lot of Prozac...' enormous laughter... a long list of anti-depressants follows, ending with 'Ritalin, and I ve studied all of the world's major religions, and despite this, nothing has prevented a basic cheerfulness from breaking through...!' as cheers and laughter fade, he recites the chorus of what is surely a modern masterpiece, Anthem: 'Ring the bells that still can ring/Forget your perfect offering/There is a crack in everything/That's how the light gets in...' his words make mine redundant, and it's time for the interval.
'Fifteen, or seventeen or so minutes' later he comes back on, preceded by roadies as dappily dressed as the main attraction, who place a keyboard centre stage. Leonard stands before it, and tells us not to be afraid, 'it plays by itself', before pushing a button and the familiar Bontempi-style rhythm of Tower of Song begins. We know he has no choice, that he 'was born with the gift of a golden voice', but the knowing laughter that accompanies these lines is familiar, like the whole audience has become Leonard's children, sat cross-legged and awe-filled, staring open-mouthed at an avuncular master as he picks his wobbly way through the one-key 'solo', which we all cheer and applaud: 'Oh you're too kind' he says with a smile, but we protest en masse - by now, anything he chooses to do is just fine with us. We're in the company of a legend, and who would have thought he could possibly be as good as this?

'Don't stop!' he tells his backing singers - the incomparable Sharon Robinson, and the wonderfully talented Webb Sisters- as the song fades out - Z'I ve got it now... I ve got it! The meaning of life is...' the audience hangs on his words, suddenly silent - if there was such a thing as the meaning of life, surely this man knows its secret - he may well reveal it tonight... and here it is: as the singers continue, he intones with them 'Do dum dum dum, de-do dum dum...' it is just one of those many perfect moments that litter tonight's show, all of which we know will stay with us, if we're lucky, forever...

Suzanne's next: it is perhaps testament to a talent, and performance, as great as this that the so-called 'hits' register no stronger than the other, less widely known material. yet even this song, rendered light by repetition, strikes me as still so stunningly poetic - from the beautiful image of 'Then she gets you on her wavelength...' I am reminded how modern his songs have always been; even when their musical setting ranges from strummed acoustic to baroque complexity, each displays an almost studied insouciance that is the epitome of modern cool. As if to prove me a liar, the next two songs, The Gypsy's Wife and Boogie Street leave little impression, until suddenly we are amidst the majesty of his most covered, and perhaps most coveted, masterpiece: Hallelujah.

Leonard's version has never been my favourite. Id usually take John Cale's simple piano version, or Jeff Buckley's guitar orchestra version, over Leonard's recording of this song. But tonight's performance is supreme, slower than either Cale's or Buckley's, which is slow enough, but this version is driven, finds its singer almost on his knees, as each verse pushes towards its inevitable pay-off of 'Hallelujah!' it is undoubtedly one of the greatest songs of the past fifty years, and tonight's rendition does it justice, Leonard's voice rising to each transcendent ending. It is the verse in which the holy dove is moving too that tears cannot help but escape my eyes again - the sauciness of the first few lines, with its knowing playfulness of 'Now you never show it to me, do you?' rendered bathetic by the sheer beauty of the following lines, 'And every breath we drew was Hallelujah...'
Perfection. How can it get any better?

But it does. The angry knowingness of Democracy [Is Coming to the USA], perhaps his most overtly political poem/song, is again driven and riven with disgusted disappointment, tempered only by Dino Soldos upbeat Wonderesque harmonica, that the so-called beacon of freedom is 'the cradle of the best and worst' underlined by an almost spat-out 'the heart has got to open in a fundamental way...' - it is a hope, perhaps a dream, but one worth keeping alive, and you can feel it here tonight. 'When, Leonard?'shouts a female voice from the balcony, and he shoots a slightly sheepish look to the rafters as if he has no greater knowledge than any of us... You're being too humble Mr Cohen...
As if knowingly, Rafael Gayol begins the cabaret soft-brush shuffle of Im Your Man, allowing the titular man to breathe the suggestive opening lines, which, just in case we haven't quite got it, he changes on later choruses to 'I ll wear a leather mask for you...' saucy, Leonard, and so, so cool. In contrast, he begins the inexorable climb of just what he would do if he thought for a moment that begging would get his woman back, finally imploring the word 'Pleeaassee!', echoed humourously by Roscoe Beck, before falling back into hyper-cool 'I m your man...' at this moment, we know with absolute certainty what the whole evening has been resolutely proving: he most certainly is Our Man...
And a poet too. As proof, he offers a simple recital of A Thousand Kisses Deep. We, perhaps not wretched, and on tonight's form far from meek, are rapt, hanging on every word, truly living life 'as if it's real', for it has surely never felt more so than now.

And then the cue for more tears; Take This Waltz. It's never sounded better.

Then he's gone. The band continues to play, end politely, and leave too. But there is no escape. The crowd, revelant, are on their feet again, wildly cheering and applauding, hoping he will return. A wait just this side of teasing and he re-emerges, doffing his hat in gratitude, and straps on his guitar. Another 'hit', So Long Marianne, making a welcome return to his set, apparently absent for many years. His hat pushed back on his head, we see a glimpse of a younger, but hardly any more vital - is such a thing possible? - crooner obviously enjoying himself. Then an insistent pulsing rhythm - the crowd know where we're heading, and it's to Manhattan, ours for the taking...

He disappears again - surely the end? But the crowd refuse to accept the inevitable, and he's back on, with a story: 'I told Sharon that my drinking was becoming a problem. She looked at me and said "Leonard this is very serious - I think we're going to have to write a song about it!"' The result, That Don't Make It Junk, with its genius opening line 'I fought against the bottle, but I had to do it drunk...' is perfect Leonard. As is another recitation, of If It Be Your Will, unspeakably poignant given his fifteen year hiatus from live performance, but back now, never better. Always respectful of his collaborators, he offers a more detailed introduction to The Webb Sisters, Hattie and Charley, who stand in a slow-to-appear spotlight, with harp and guitar - is there no end to his accomplices' accomplishments? After he has sonorously told us the lyrics, which at first sound so perfect as a poem it is difficult to believe that music could improve them, the two beautiful voices offer their version - and prove that belief irrelevant: it is simply heartbreaking...

Then Closing Time, in case we haven't quite got the message! But there is nothing hurried about this version, and for the first time tonight, each band member indulges in a solo, an opportunity which not one player abuses - only Roscoe Beck's noodly bass very slightly mars the occasion, but as musical director, and therefore the man most likely responsible for these near-definitive arrangements of his master's songs, he's earned a noodle or two... here, Rafael Gayol's subtle and self-effacing solo highlights what a supremely magnanimous player he is - an obvious virtuoso, his drumming is light and unshowy, even on what is supposed to be his big opportunity to impress! Leonard is gracious as ever, painstakingly following each player's part with their full name and added appreciation, and then they're gone.
The audience is on its feet again, another minutes-long ovation to welcome him back on stage. He tells us to sit down, as an audience standing makes him nervous: 'I always think you're about to leave...' there's no chance of that. We are all captive - if we could take him home with us we surely would... He ends with the fittingly titled I Tried to Leave You, his fourth encore, again his wry smile colouring every knowing line, and sadly we know he must now leave, infeasibly happy that our favourite uncle is back amongst us.

This night in Manchester, King Cohen held court for three majestic hours. Long, long may he reign supreme...

Photos © 2008 Jarkko Arjatsalo. Used by permission.

More photos from Manchester on the previous page

More audience reports here on our Forum
Marie's media report at Speaking Cohen website