Leonard Cohen Shows Vitality in Austin Tour Opener

Three-hour show spans the great songwriter's career

Leonard Cohen
November 1, 2012 12:35 PM ET

During Leonard Cohen's last American tour, which stretched for the better part of two years, the septuagenarian often pointed out that there was no telling when or if he and his audience would meet again. On Wednesday night at the kickoff of his new American tour in Austin, Cohen echoed that sentiment: "I hope we meet again, but if we don't, we're going to give you everything we've got tonight."

That "everything" turned into a marathon performance of more than three hours, which saw Cohen and his nine-piece band offering reverential and impassioned versions of songs from throughout his career, including a handful from his latest album, Old Ideas. Jogging out on the stage of Bass Concert Hall wearing his trademark black suit and fedora, Cohen exuded a playful spirit from the start of the swaying waltz opener "Dance Me to the End of Love," through the emotional peaks and valleys of his deep and storied songbook.

Cohen was in sharp command of his sturdy, smoky baritone for the entire show, with its tone adding gravitas to the dilemma of "The Future" ("When they said repent, I wonder what they meant"), the game-is-fixed lament of "Everybody Knows" and the romantic fatalism of "The Darkness." To punctuate those and other sentiments he often kneeled while clasping his microphone, genuflecting on one knee to address a lover or someone wronged, or going completely prone on two knees when speaking of a higher power.

What became quickly apparent once Cohen started traipsing through his catalog – the whole of it masterfully painted with vivid images, conflict and rich characters – is how much his songwriting benefited from piling up accolades as a writer and poet before moving into folk music in the Sixties. With his skill with phrasing and imagery, he let lines linger throughout the night while repeatedly doffing his hat toward his guitarists, violinist, backup singers and other side players, who guided the songs from dirges ("Amen") to a boogie country shuffle ("Heart With No Companion") and the near-Goth dance beat of "First We Take Manhattan."

Referring to his audience throughout as "my friends" and spreading the love around to his band after several standing ovations, Cohen otherwise was sparing but gracious in his crowd interaction. One exception was the introduction to "Democracy," which saw the Canadian native reassuring that the song was not a commentary about next week's presidential election, no matter how easy it might be to draw inferences from a chorus like "Democracy is coming to the U.S.A."

More than an hour into the night, showing not even a trace of fatigue after a moving run through "Anthem," Cohen skipped off the stage to take an intermission; one suspects it was more for the audience's benefit than his own. He jogged back 15 minutes later to kick off "Tower of Song," pranced back off another hour-plus later after "Take This Waltz" and trotted out again for a restrained encore opener, "So Long, Marianne."

Just as it looked like the 78-year-old might stretch the night into morning, Cohen lamented he had "only four minutes left" and ended with a half-speed but celebratory cover of the Drifters' "Save the Last Dance For Me." By that point he was about two hours past having anything left to prove. Yet it was a closing that left no doubt that he's as vital – both physically and as a cultural asset – as he's ever been.

Set List:
"Dance Me to the End of Love"
"The Future"
"Bird on a Wire"
"Everybody Knows"
"Who By Fire"
"The Darkness"
"Sisters of Mercy"
"Come Healing"
"In My Secret Life"
"A Thousand Kisses Deep"
"Waiting for a Miracle"
"Tower of Song"
"The Night Comes On"
"Heart With No Companion"
"The Gypsy's Wife"
"The Partisan"
"Coming Back to You"
"Alexandra Leaving"
"I'm Your Man"
"Take This Waltz"

"So Long, Marianne"
"First We Take Manhattan"
"Famous Blue Raincoat"
"Going Home"
"Closing Time"
"Save the Last Dance For Me"

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Song Stories

“Bird on a Wire”

Leonard Cohen | 1969

While living on the Greek island of Hydra, Cohen was battling a lingering depression when his girlfriend handed him a guitar and suggested he play something. After spotting a bird on a telephone wire, Cohen wrote this prayer-like song of guilt. First recorded by Judy Collins, it would be performed numerous times by artists incuding Johnny Cash, Joe Cocker and Rita Coolidge. "I'm always knocked out when I hear my songs covered or used in some situation," Cohen told Rolling Stone. "I've never gotten over the fact that people out there like my music."

More Song Stories entries »