So softly intoned is his music, and so privately consumed is it by his fans, the idea of a Leonard Cohen arena show is possibly a little bizarre. 43 dates into the summer leg of his world tour, as he addresses the 20,000 crowd in London’s O2 Arena, it’s plain that the 73-year old is well-attuned to the ironies in the situation. “Thank you for joining us,” he says, “at a place just the other side of intimacy…”
Witty, urbane – it’s the perfect introduction to the Cohen show that follows. Over the next three hours, Cohen and his band deliver music that’s representative of his many selves: the lightly picked guitar of his early records, the wry lounge-style treatments of his post 1990s-music, and in between, tastefully arranged full-band renderings of material like “Bird On A Wire”, given a Dylanesque feel by Neil Larson‘s Hammond organ.
Neil Larson? Like every other patron this evening, I know Neil Larson because Leonard has introduced him to me, and done so many times. Over the course of the show we meet all of the band members (three backing singers, two guitars, sax, bass, drums and keyboards) in a similar way, introduced by Cohen in unique fashion: “Javier Mas…the shepherd of strings…”, and possibly most beautifully, “Dino Soldo…master of breath, on the instrument of wind…”
All round, it’s a show which, as you might hope, illustrates both the gravity of Cohen’s music, and the great warmth of his wit. But as much as it is about those things, this is also a show with a prominent subtext about the blessings of a long life. What Cohen conveys in person is not so much age (he literally skips on stage and off; he frequently falls, Nick Cave-like to his knees to address guitar-player Javier Mas in song), as huge experience.
Not least in the structuring of a show. Split into two unequal halves, (a 55 minute first section, and then an hour and three quarters second) the show establishes its own sedate, swaying pace with the great “Dance Me To The End Of Love”, followed by “The Future”, and “Ain’t No Cure.” “It’s been 15 years since I last stood on a stage in London,” he says, as he has with city-specific variation everywhere on this tour. “When I was just a 60-year old kid with a crazy dream…” Like everything else, Cohen’s patter is polished to perfection.
His years have evidently taught Cohen to self-deprecate. Dressed in a double-breasted suit and hat (he once remarked in an interview: “At my age if you don’t wear a suit people think you’re homeless”), he is throughout a master of humility and grace. After most songs, he removes his hat. Flattering to him and to us, he credits us for allowing events like this to take place: “Thank you for keeping my songs alive…”At one point he intones the word “(i)old(i)…” in a voice so deep, the cavernous O2 reverberates in sympathy with him
In the second set, it is during “Hallelujah” that the show really begins to animate the crowd. Though it’s arguably more familiar to us in its cover versions, Cohen’s performance of the song is highly physical, as if he wishes to re-assert his ownership of the material. It’s impressive stuff, and it earns him the first of the evening’s standing ovations. Most interesting, perhaps is the recitation, “A Thousand Kisses Deep”, which establishes Cohen, his voice, and his art, as the ultimate in romantic accomplishment. Behind me, a woman audibly gasps.
Really, it’s this should be the defining mood of the show. As you think about the words you’ve heard used a lot in the evening, you remember quite a lot of “ice”, quite a lot of “old”. Predominately, however, you remember a lot of love.
Leonard Cohen’s O2 Arena Set List was:
Dance Me To The End Of Love
Ain’t No Cure
Bird On The Wire
Who By Fire
Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye
Tower Of Song
I’m Your Man
A Thousand Kisses Deep
Take This Waltz
So Long, Marianne
First We Take Manhattan
Sisters Of Mercy
If It Be Your Will
I Tried To Leave You
Wither You Goest