The Fredericton Playhouse in New Brunswick, Canada seats just 709 people. It usually doesn’t manage to book shows bigger than children’s entertainer Raffi or a local production of Guys and Dolls, but on May 11th, 2008 it served as the launching pad for one of the most extraordinary (and unexpected) resurrections in rock history. That was the night that Leonard Cohen, with virtually no fanfare, took the stage for the first time in fifteen years, kicking off a six-year odyssey that absolutely nobody, least of all Leonard Cohen, could have ever seen coming.
For much of the late 1990s and early 2000s, Cohen retreated completely from public life and lived on a Buddhist monastery on Mount Baldy near Los Angeles. Returning to the stage was the furthest thing from his mind. “I never thought I’d tour again,” he told Rolling Stone in 2012. “Although I did have dreams. Sometimes my dreams would entail me being up on stage and not remembering the words or the chords. It had a nightmarish quality, which did not invite me to pursue the enterprise.”
Severe financial difficulties in the mid-2000’s caused him to reconsider, even though by early 2008 he was 73, hadn’t played a show since 1993 and was extremely unsure whether or not he still had an audience.
A very short Canadian theater tour was booked, kicking off in tiny, remote cities far away from the media spotlight. It turned out that such precautions weren’t warranted. Cohen assembled a stunning band and his deepened voice actually infused his songs with incredible power and emotion. He’d never sounded better and he somehow found the stamina to perform for over three hours. Reviews were absolutely rapturous and word spread very quickly. Before he knew it, he was headlining arenas for the first time in his career. (Above is the video of “Hallelujah” from that very first night in Fredericton.)
Within a year Cohen had more money in the bank than ever before, but the tour just kept going. He stopped in 2011 to record the new album Old Ideas and then got right back on the road. He’s played over 370 concerts since that first night, and there are indictions he wants to get back on the road after wrapping up a new album at the end of this year. He’ll be 80 years old at that point, but there’s every reason to think that he’ll keep playing three-and-a-half hour shows where he literally skips offstage after the final encore.