Leonard Cohen comes on stage at a veritable trot, almost skipping, more sprightly by a distance than you would expect of a man in his mid-seventies. The crowd, who have clearly come to adore him, reward his athleticism with a standing ovation. It’s the first of many tonight, although the others that follow are for performances of songs from his majestic back catalogue that are played to something we’d have to call perfection.
From the reverent hush that now settles on this vast auditorium, the 02 audience is in its entirety in awe of him, hang on his every word, as if his every utterance is some kind of benediction, the music, in smooth washes, rolling over them, the songs coming in wave after wave over the next three hours.
For his part, he is as dapper as the devil, handsomely tailored, a fedora at a rakish tilt, clearly relishing the triumph of his current remarkable comeback, essaying a little soft-shoe shuffle during “Dance Me To The End Of Love”, the opening number.
I’m pretty awe-struck myself, as with regal composure, on song after song after song, he reminds me of the ways in which this music has meant so much to me down the years and occupied at times such a central place in my life and the people who’ve shared it with me.
And so as I sit as spellbound as anyone else here tonight, enchanted and moved and amused, laughing out loud at parts of Cohen’s patter, which might not change much from night to night but is still wonderfully wry. “The times are hard and a lot of you are going to be driven to drink,” he says, introducing “”That Don’t Make It Junk” as a song that will at that point enlighten particular turning point in our lives.
The highlights would include everything on the generous set-list, but mention might be made of gorgeous versions of his earliest songs – “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye”, “Suzanne”, a stunning “So Long, Marianne”, from The Songs Of Leonard Cohen, and “Bird On A Wire” and a gaspingly beautiful “The Partisan” from Songs From A Room, the latter a lament so haunting it surely brings tears to thousands of eyes.
Elsewhere, “Hallelujah”, “Tower Of Song”, “Anthem”, “Who By Fire” and “First We Take Manhattan” are just unforgettable, delivered by Cohen with his shoulders hunched and his eyes closed in secret rapture.
He’s elegantly served by a band for whom the word impeccable seems shoddily inadequate, who would seem perhaps too singularly polished and refined if it wasn’t for the quiet passion of their playing – particularly the virtuoso Javier Mas on 12-string guitar, seated to Cohen’s left, who astonishes throughout.
And what can I say about the vocal support of Sharon Robinson and the Webb Sisters? Theirs are voices that seem not quite of this world, or even the next, sublime and wondrous and not a little sexy at times.
What will stay with me longest, though, is Cohen returning to the stage, the lights still low around him and through the melancholy darkness offering up a sublime reading of perhaps his greatest song, “Famous Blue Raincoat”.
“Thanks for keeping my songs alive for so many years,” he had said, introducing the second half of the show, although it must be said that songs as great as these have a life of their own that will outlast us all.
1 Dance Me To The End Of Love
2 The Future
3 Ain’t No Cure For Love
4 Bird On A Wire
5 Everybody Knows
6 In My Secret Life
7 Who By Fire
8 Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye
9 That Don’t Make It Junk
11 Tower Of Song
13 Gypsy Wife
14 The Partisan
15 Boogie Street
17 I’m Your Man
18 A Thousand Kisses
19 Take This Waltz
20 So Long, Marianne
21 First We Take Manhattan
22 Famous Blue Raincoat
23 If It Be Your Will
25 I Tried To Leave You