Walking into the Sony Centre for Leonard Cohen’s Toronto concert on June 6th people had plenty of reasons to think the show might be a disappointment. The 73-year-old songwriting legend hadn’t performed a single concert in 15 years before this tour kicked off a few weeks back. He’s rarely been seen in public since then, and when he showed up at his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction earlier this year he looked pretty meek and refused to perform. Also, it’s quite clear the only reason he agreed to do this tour was the fact his manager stole nearly all his money during his five years Buddhist retreat on Mount Baldy in California and he needed a nest egg for retirement. Yet, like a master bank robber forced out of retirement for one last gigantic score, Cohen poured everything he had into a stunning performance.
Cohen walked onstage with a nine-piece band promptly at 8:00, wearing a dark, double-breasted suit and a fedora — he looked like he just stepped out of the Dick Tracy retirement home. From the first seconds of “Dance Me to the End of Love” it was apparent that his deep baritone hadn’t deteriorated a bit since the 1993 tour. It’s a far cry from the tender voice that sang “Suzanne” 40 years ago, but he’s sounded husky for a while now and it suits his dark material perfectly. The band — featuring an amazing Hammond B3 organist and his longtime back-up singer Sharon Robinson — re-created the spooky atmosphere of his albums down to the smallest detail.
Cohen played a handful of his 1960s/early-1970s classics such as “Suzanne” and “Bird on a Wire,” but the set list was heavily tilted towards material from the second 20 years of his career. He featured six of the eight songs from 1988’s I’m Your Man, along with five from 1992’s The Future and four from 2000’s Ten New Songs. It was a drag not hearing “Famous Blue Raincoat” or “So Long Marianne,” but the later songs have always sounded better live. A double shot of “Waiting for the Miracle” and “First We Take Manhattan” towards the end of the night were clear highlights and “I’m Your Man” remains one of the horniest songs ever written — though delivered with the class and wit only Cohen can bring.
The biggest applause of the night came in the early part of the second set when he launched into “Hallelujah.” Since his last tour, the 1984 tune has been covered by just about everyone on the planet (including American Idol hopeful Jason Castro) and has become his most famous composition. John Cale, Rufus Wainwright and (of course) Jeff Buckley all managed to eclipse the original, and tonight Cohen sang it like he was trying to reclaim it for himself. The lines “Even thought it all went wrong I stood before the Lord of Song with nothing on my lips but Hallelujah” were belted out with stunning force and conviction. Equally powerful was the title track to The Future, though for some reason “Give me crack, anal sex” has become “Give me crack, careless sex.” “Democracy” took on new meaning during the weekend Hillary Clinton suspended her campaign, and the line “Democracy is coming to the USA” earned huge cheers from the Canadian crowd.
“My friends are gone and my hair is grey,” Cohen sang in “Tower of Song.” He wrote those when he was merely 53, and 20 years later those words are truer than ever. But the Leonard Cohen onstage didn’t seem anything like an old man pining for the past. After two and a half hours, he still returned for the encores with a huge grin on his face. The man may be older than Jerry Lee Lewis and John McCain, but other than the times he sang verses while awkwardly squinting at the ground (presumably at a teleprompter) that was very easy to forget. His touring schedule is brutal (this was night one of a four-consecutive-night stand) and pretty soon he’ll be bouncing around Europe like a madman. When it’s done he’ll probably return to Los Angeles with a dump truck full of money and never perform again. Still, it’s a hell of a way to go out.