Defying his 74 years and his decades spent as rock'n'roll's hard-living bard, Leonard Cohen impishly scampered onto the Beacon Theater's newly renovated stage to a standing ovation last night (Feb. 19) in New York. He proceeded to nimbly sink down to one knee to serenade his bandurria player, Javier Mas, with "Dance Me To The End Of Love" in a voice as hot and raspy as a flaming shot of whiskey.
After a 15-year hiatus from touring, many fans were unsure what to expect from Cohen's performance. It's no secret that his lifestyle as a younger man didn't encourage longevity (Cohen jokingly listed Prozac, Paxil, Effexor, Wellbutrin, Ritalin and Tylenol full-strength as former interests of his). But his energy throughout the performance was electric, driving the crowd to its feet after nearly every song.
Cohen's touring band, led by musical director and bass player Roscoe Beck, laid a subtle, shimmering and sometimes funky background behind Cohen's celebrated lyrics and theater-shaking basso profundo. And the surprisingly spry singer wobbled into shuffling foot dances and rascally grapevine steps as guitarist Bob Metzger and saxophone player/multi-instrumentalist Dino Soldo took their solos.
Cohen led the band through the immortal refrains of "Suzanne" and his dark gospel "Hallelujah" as well as "I'm Your Man" and "If It Be Your Will." He whipped the audience into a frenzy with the native nods "First We Take Manhattan" and "Chelsea Hotel," and then stood back to let vocalist and collaborator Sharon Robinson and vocalist sisters Hattie and Charley Webb take the lead as he watched, enamored.
Seeing "Hallelujah" performed by its true creator after years of hearing it covered by many less stylish and slicker than he was a true epiphany. As Cohen sank to he knees and begged upwards, the words to the familiar song became new, a prayer rather than a lament. And when he finished the song with the verse that has been left out of the most famous cover versions of "Hallelujah" (by John Cale's and Jeff Buckley) -- "And even though it all went wrong, I'll stand before the Lord of Song, with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah" -- the song's true, tragically reverent spirit shone through.
Ever the gentleman, the dapper, suit-clad Cohen removed his hat for each of his backing musicians and introduced the entire band not once, but twice. He waxed sweetly nostalgic, telling the crowd, "It's been a long time since I stood up on a stage in New York City. I was a young man of 60 then with a dream," and he fondly goofed on his experiments in faith, saying, "I turned to the study of religions and philosophies, but cheerfulness kept breaking through."
Indeed, the evening was joyful; for the audience, but more so for Cohen himself. He seemed positively elated to be back in front of an audience in his beloved city, skipping off the stage at the end of the main set and then again after each of two encores. Any first-timer would have seen every bit of the power of Leonard Cohen both as a performer and a songwriter in the show.
And when his signature humility appeared as he heavily pronounced the line "I hope you're satisfied" during the closing song, "I Tried To Leave You," the audience responded by erupting uncontrollably in cheers and applause, as if to tell him we were.
A long line of disappointed fans waited outside in the blistering February cold hoping for a last minute spare ticket, but those who didn't make it in (resale value of a single ticket reportedly reached $700) will have a second chance to see Cohen during his North American tour this spring.