Concert Review: Leonard Cohen

Jason Kempin/Getty Images
Beacon Theatre, New York
Thursday, Feb. 19

If it's true that Leonard Cohen is touring again only because he was fleeced of millions by his manager, then said manager deserves hearty thanks. Performing his first U.S. concert in 15 years at the gorgeously refurbished Beacon Theatre, the legendary singer-songwriter-poet and recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee delivered a magnificent evening of music that never will be forgotten by anyone lucky enough to have been there.

The excitement began before the sold-out show, with hundreds outside the theater begging desperately for tickets like tweens shut out of a Jonas Brothers concert.

Generating this hysteria was a 74-year-old man dressed dapperly in a suit and fedora and singing in a voice that rightly has been compared to aged parchment.

But that raspy vocal instrument still has the power to hypnotize an audience, which Cohen and his superb six-piece band proceeded to do for the better part of three hours. As much performance art as concert, the show included songs from throughout his four-decade career, from early classics including "Suzanne" and "Bird on a Wire" to such later hits as "I'm Your Man" and "Dance Me to the End of Love" and selections from 2001's unjustly neglected "Ten New Songs."

Occasionally accompanying himself on guitar, Cohen sang with haunting intensity, clutching the microphone closely to his lips and dropping frequently to his knees. (This is a septuagenarian so spry that he skipped on and off the stage.) He also displayed a courtly demeanor, doffing his hat to acknowledge the audience's cheers.

He effectively reclaimed his classic songs that have been covered by endless artists, including "Hallelujah," delivered in a trancelike incantation. Highlights are too numerous to mention but included the spoken-word "A Thousand Kisses Deep"; "First We Take Manhattan," which received the expected response; and "Democracy," the lyrics of which have taken on new immediacy.

The superb arrangements deviated frequently from recorded versions, with Javier Mas' fluid guitar adding gypsy elements to the mix.

Cohen's music might be famously morose, but it also contains much humor, which he exploited well by emphasizing self-deprecating lyrics like "I was born with the gift of a golden voice," from "Tower of Song." Referring to his previous local appearance, he joked, "I was 60 years old, just a kid with a crazy dream." He then provided a seemingly endless list of anti-depressants he has taken before adding, "I turned to a study of religion and philosophies, but cheerfulness kept breaking through."

He introduced his band and three female backup singers -- including frequent songwriting partner Sharon Robinson -- not once but twice, with more poeticism than can be found in most songwriters' entire oeuvres.

His third encore, after several standing ovations, was, appropriately enough, "I Tried to Leave You." When he got to the line "I hope you're satisfied," the resulting roar from the crowd made clear the answer.