Thousands are in attendance for Leonard Cohen’s debut performance at Leeds’ First Direct Arena. As the band assume their position on stage, Cohen, now 78, runs on and adopts a posture reminiscent of a 1950s rock n’ roller: hunched over, knees bent inwards. His voice is dark and distinctive as he assures the audience: “I don’t know when we’ll meet again – nobody ever does know that – but I promise you tonight, friends, we’ll give you everything we got.”
A delicate guitar solo leads the band into Bird on the Wire as Cohen tenderly kneels, confessing: “it was the shape of our love that twisted me”. Time has distanced neither regret nor sentimentality from Cohen’s passionate delivery of this 1960s country song as he laments, “if I have been untrue, I hope you know it was never to you”. Everybody Knows is a fitting reprise: a less meandering, resilient counter to the themes of regret and sorrow in the previous song.
Cohen’s frustrated energy is fully visible tonight. Thanks to the projector screens either side of the stage, the audience is treated to close-ups of Cohen’s intense, brooding facial expressions contained in his curving, dimmed eyes. “I’ve got the darkness baby, I got it worse than you” he playfully boasts in this song rife with sexual tension.
The band plays three new songs consecutively, all of which draw upon biblical themes: from The Darkness and repentance in Amen, to the absolution in Come Healing. These slower numbers introduce us to the soaring vocal harmonies of the angelic Webb Sisters. Their duet performance of If It Be Your Will is pitch perfect but can’t match Cohen’s touching spoken introduction. His long-time collaborator, Sharon Robinson, delivers a rendition of Alexandra Leaving that comes much closer.
The half-way interval gives time to reflect on the apparent insignificance of Cohen’s age; I’m surprised to see that he looks healthier than when I saw him on his 2008 tour and his voice’s oaky timbre is sharper and more sustained.
As the evening resumes, Cohen’s humble charm draws in the audience as we are confronted with his decades of longing for lovers gone by. Suzanne lulls us whilst a single spotlight showers onto Cohen and his acoustic guitar. Next, he recalls an intimate encounter with Janis Joplin in a 1970s New York hotel – and it is sad. With his eyes closed and frowning, his gentle delivery invokes a sense of longing worthy of the deathbed, “I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel, you were talking so brave and so sweet, giving me head on the unmade bed, while the limousines wait in the street.”
Despite his intensity and nostalgia, Cohen’s performance is free from self-indulgence or abstraction. Matters of love, death, poverty and war are prevalent in songs such as The Future and The Partisan. Yet, his seemingly natural on-stage humour provides enough comic relief in between these heavier subjects. Midway through Tower of Song, Cohen embarks on a limp electric piano solo and – in response to the audience’s sympathetic applause – asks: “Are you mocking me? Is this some sort of…charity for the elderly?”
Having performed for almost three hours and through a double encore, the band launch into their last song: Closing Time. The audience – silently receptive for most of the evening – are quick to show their appreciation, rising to their feet and clapping along to this final, raunchy number.
Leonard Cohen performs at the O2 Arena, London on Sunday 15th September.
Dance Me to the End of Love
Bird on the Wire
Who by Fire
The Gypsy’s Wife
Lover Lover Lover
Tower of Song
Chelsea Hotel #2
Waiting for the Miracle
In My Secret Life
Alexandra Leaving (performed by Sharon Robinson)
I’m Your Man
A Thousand Kisses Deep
Take this Waltz
So Long, Marianne
First We Take Manhattan
Famous Blue Raincoat
If It Be Your Will (performed by the Webb Sisters)
Photo credit (from top): Wikipedia commons, Leo Garbutt