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Leonard Cohen at Madison Square Garden: Concert Review

Leonard Cohen North American Tour - H 2012
Kevin Winter/Getty Images

The Bottom Line

Leonard Cohen proves his agelessness in this gorgeous, marathon-length concert showcasing his brilliant compositions.

Leonard Cohen

The Webb Sisters

Sharon Robinson

The 78-year-old singer-songwriter delivers a career-defining concert.

I want to be Leonard Cohen when I grow up.

After many years in hibernation, the endlessly cool 78-year-old singer-songwriter has returned to his career with a vengeance — perhaps literally so, since it was prompted by the embezzlement of his life’s savings by his former business manager. Since 2008 he’s been touring the world, playing arenas to capacity crowds and delivering shows that have been the best-received of his entire career. And the release this year of his latest CD, Old Ideas, demonstrates that he’s still -- to quote one of his best-known compositions — atop the tower of song.

At Madison Square Garden Tuesday night, Cohen delivered on the declaration he uttered early in the evening.

“I don’t know when we’ll meet again, but I promise that tonight we’ll give you everything we’ve got,” he said.

And that he did, along with a superb six-piece band and a trio of back-up singers that included the sublime Webb Sisters (Charley and Hattie) and his longtime songwriting collaborator Sharon Robinson. Performing for 3 1/2 hours including intermission, he delivered a career-defining show that included numerous selections from the new release.

The tropes of his performance style are by now familiar, but no less comforting. The spry septuagenarian, clad in his trademark dark suit and fedora, belies his age by literally skipping on and off the stage. He delivers many of his vocals either crouched in intense fashion or literally on his knees, and his ability to rise to his feet effortlessly even while singing provides a testament to whatever health regimen he’s on.

Far from his amusing self-description in his new song “Going Home” as “a lazy bastard living in a suit,” the performer invests his performance with a searing intensity that takes on almost religious overtones. Even in this cavernous arena, he held the audience spellbound throughout the lengthy evening, no more so when he quietly recites his poem “A Thousand Kisses Deep.”

His demeanor is ever courtly, profusely thanking the audience several times for their attention and repeatedly introducing not only his musicians and singers but everyone down to the sound mixer and the guy who rigged the curtain. During his band member’s numerous solos, he frequently took off his hat and sat by their feet, as if in supplication.

And it was well deserved, as the multi-national musicians enhanced songs both new and familiar with gorgeous instrumental flourishes, from Alexandru Bublitchi’s beautiful violin work to Neil Larsen’s bluesy keyboards to Javier Mas’ virtuoso playing of a variety of string instruments including the oud. The music touched on many genres — folk, rock, gypsy, blues, jazz, gospel, flamenco, waltz — with effortless grace.

Highlights are too numerous to mention. Casual fans were rewarded with stirring versions of such classics as “Suzanne,” “Bird on a Wire,” “Everybody Knows,” “I’m Your Man,”  “Take This Waltz,” “Famous Blue Raincoat” and, of course, the now ubiquitous “Hallelujah.”  But he also dug deep into the archives with such songs as “Who by Fire,” “Lover Lover Lover” and “Chelsea Hotel #2” as well as showcasing such new compositions as “Show Me the Place,” “Amen” and the rocking “Darkness.”

The latter prompted one of the evening’s most amusing moments, as he followed it with the mock admission that “I look in the mirror and I say, Lighten up, Leonard,” before launching into “Ain’t No Cure for Love.” Later, after receiving an ovation for his twinkly keyboard playing on “Tower of Song,” he asked, “Is this charity for the elderly?”

He generously gave the spotlight to Robinson, who handled the lead vocal on “Alexandra Leaving,” and the Webb Sisters, who delivered the penultimate number, “If It Be Your Will.”

The marathon evening ended shortly before midnight with the inevitable “Closing Time.”

“It’s hell to pay when the fiddler stops, it’s closing time,” he sang in his trademark rumbling baritone. For his sake as well as ours, let’s hope that doesn’t come anytime soon.

Set List:

Dance Me to the End of Love

The Future

Bird on a Wire

Everybody Knows

Who by Fire

Darkness

Ain’t No Cure for Love

Amen

Come Healing

In My Secret Life

A Thousand Kisses Deep (recitation)

Anthem

Tower of Song

Suzanne

Chelsea Hotel #2

Waiting for the Miracle

Show Me the Place

Lover Lover Lover

Democracy

Alexandra Leaving (Sharon Robinson)

I’m Your Man

Hallelujah

Take This Waltz

So Long Marianne

Going Home

First We Take Manhattan

Famous Blue Raincoat

If It Be Your Will (the Webb sisters)

Closing Time