Legendary singer/songwriter plays to sold out crowd at Radio City Music Hall and Rock NYC‘s Iman Lababedi brings us his review
By Iman Lababedi
Not every day you get to see a Zen Buddhist Monk enthrall a sold our Radio City Music Hall Saturday night for three plus hours playing career spanning songs. Not every singer songwriter’s grandfather was the founding president of the Canadian Jewish Congress. And not every poet can write a lyric like “from the wars against disorder, from the sirens night and day, from the fires of the homeless, and the ashes of decay, Democracy is coming to the USA“. And not every greatest pop star of the 20th century will get as ambivalent an assessment as this one.
At the age of 70, Leonard Cohen discovered his life savings had been embezzled and at 74 years old he went back on the road to make the money back. An excellent, excellent reason to go back on the road and Cohen’s loss was the world’s gain as the writer of “Hallelujah” was embraced with mass idolation. Enough to give me reason for pause the two times I saw the show in 2009 and I wrote a very poorly received pan. In part: “This is New York, Cohen. Don’t tell the same jokes that are all over “Live In London”. Don’t throw “New York” in the middle of “Hallujah” (and don’t kill the rhymes -you wrote em, sing em). Don’t wait for the applause when you sing “First We’ll Take Manhattan”…. in a word, don’t go on automatic, we’re NYC, we know when you’re faking it.”
Many years ago, I watched Jeff Buckley cover “Hallelujah” at a mostly empty Roseland and was mesmerized. Perhaps my problem was none of the above, perhaps my problem with Cohen was I didn’t like his voice and it made the songs sound samey to me. If so, I’ve gotten over it. This is the review where I join the multitudes and write words of praise to this wonderful songwriter and poet. Perhaps I’m not the fan you are and the set is very long, but, boy my boy, some of these songs are just… from the 1969 folk self-flagellation of “Bird On A Wire” to the dry witty jazzness of 2012′s “Anyhow”, there is such consistent greatness here. I don’t find Cohen riveting, and I am not charmed by him, but I can’t deny his songs and I can’t deny a man who spends half the show on his knees at the center of the stage.
Look , anybody who spends five years in a Tibet monastery is not looking for something, he has found something. And in his performance, his is a gilded lily of sound and performance, the set arches and aches, it moves through Gypsy waltzes through folk, blues, to quite the same concept as Joseph Heller’s last novel before shutting us down and going on. He sings 25 songs, recites one, and has other performers sing two. And listening for so long to so many songs, you begin to see his poetic mannerisms. “Show Me The Place”, “Everybody Knows”, “The Future” “Who by Fire” and more use iteration of a statement followed by different qualifiers. I am nitpicking? No, I’m showing off.
I prefer the 2013 tour to the 2009, though I miss and then some “Sisters Of Mercy” and “Chelsea Hotel # 2″. All the new songs are excellent and I just wish Cohen had included “Different Sides” with the magical line “come on baby give me a kiss, stop writing everything down”. I didn’t much care for Old Ideas when I first heard it, but I am willing to admit my mistake. The man can write a song or have I said that before, OK he can construct an album as well. For “Tower Of Sound”, Cohen had the best ending ever in 2009 in which he discovers the meaning of life. It is a pity he changed it.
To compare the two tour setlists: “Democracy” changes the tone of the first set, it improves it and adds a great joining of audience and singer with a hopeful and remarkable song. Set 2 really misses “Sisters Of Misses” followed by “The Gypsy Wife” but Sharon Robinson’s beatific “Alexandra Leaving” is a smart move. More than I can say for giving the penultimate song of the evening to his back up singers the Webb Sisters. And the really terrible idea of breaking up the “So Long Marianne” followed by “First We Take Manhattan” encore that worked so well in 2009 with another song. Pacing, Leonard, pacing.
So why am I not crazy about Cohen? I feel as though I am being strong armed by public opinion. If I want a deity, I’ll choose my own thank you very much. His old world charm doesn’t work on me. He is a self-proclaimed ladies man and I am no lady. His voice is too deep. He is too perfect in some way. Hell, even Lou Reed loves him. He is one of the greatest lyricist in modern pop music. I don’t like being forced stuff.
And yet… the songs!!! I adore entire albums, Death Of A Ladies Man , the Phil Spector one, for instance, I love individual songs, I admire his politics, his religious indifference (much smarter than Nick Cave’s), his melodies, his attitude, his writing, his words… his self-awareness and humility. But on stage he drags me, I fidget too much through long, long songs, that go on and I wish they would stop though when they have stopped I am not sure I want them to have stopped.
It stinks of rank sophistication to be so ambiguous about Cohen’s abundant gifts but there were times Saturday night where he completely lost me, too many of them, too much time checking my watch. I don’t like his version of “Hallelujah” and I am frankly sick of it, except, “Maybe there’s a God above but all I’ve ever learned from love was how to shoot at someone who outdrew you”? or “I couldn’t feel so I tried to touch”? See what I mean? Anyway, I am bored with it.
Jeff Buckley was wearing a Presley gold tux when I saw him sing “Hallelujah” back in, what, 1994? Performing the John Cale version. Jeff looked so young and alive. That night you could imagine Buckley having a career not dissimilar from Cohen’s, If you thought about it hard enough. The place was kinda empty and the audience gravitated from the fringes of the dancefloor to the middle ground as the set progressed. Juliana Hatfield was the headliner and people were late. The girls in the audience moved slowly almost dragged themselves to the front of the stage and I bet they react to Leonard Cohen the same way, in a state of extended awe. The place was so empty and Buckley looked like the son of God, or the son of Elvis, or his father’s son indeed, or maybe the son of Cohen. alone by himself waiting for his fate.
That’s all I have to say.
(Iman Lababedi is editor-at-large for Rock NYC. For more great live reviews and other content, visit Rock NYC Live and Recorded.)