“I was looking at life expectancy tables, and I could probably do another seven or eight years.” So Leonard Cohen claimed as he introduced “The Future” – the second song kicking off the major North American leg of his Old Ideas World Tour, which commenced in December 2012 with two New York dates and resumed for an additional 19 shows at Oakland, California’s Paramount Theatre last night. “I don’t know, friends, when we’ll ever meet again – no one can know that – but tonight we’ll give you everything we’ve got.” And that’s exactly what the Canadian genius poet-songwriter and his nine-piece backing band did, despite the omnipresent air of mortality – only reinforced when Cohen sang “I know my days are few” during “Darkness.”
With every tour jaunt, gossip inevitably centers on the possibility that it will be Cohen’s final such outing. Indeed, when you’re a 78-year-old with decades of decadence under your belt, there’s a significant chance that each performance might be your last. But Cohen’s spry sprint onto the stage to launch into “Dance Me To The End Of Love” at the beginning of the show seemed to mock such talk, resulting in the first of many standing ovations of the night. Three hours and 28 songs later, Cohen had entered Springsteen endurance territory, making clear he wasn’t going away anytime soon.
If anything, Cohen proved more vital onstage than ever, which follows his recent creative trajectory. His comeback tour, which started half a decade ago and continues to evolve with each passing year, has proven to be one of music’s greatest success stories: Cohen had always been considered a cult act, but by 2009 his recent concerts had already grossed $50 million, according to I’m Your Man, Sylvie Simmons’ essential recent biography, published last year. But Cohen refuses to exist as a mere oldies act. In 2012, Cohen released Old Ideas, his first album of new material in nearly a decade. At a moment when he could have rested on his laurels, Old Ideas proved anything but a victory lap: Instead, it was one of the greatest efforts in the Leonard Cohen canon, adding ten new stone classics to the one of the richest repertoires in pop music. Old Ideas also proved Cohen’s highest commercial success, shooting into the U.S. charts’ Top Ten and reaching the top spot in numerous countries around the globe.
At the Paramount, Cohen would perform almost half of Old Ideas, to the displeasure of absolutely no one; the new songs sounded absolutely of a piece with the more familiar chestnuts like the encore “So Long, Marianne” (which caused spontaneous outbreaks of couples waltzing in the crowd). Likewise, Cohen hardly treated his vintage favorites as sacred texts. “Waiting For a Miracle” was given a deeper, almost trip-hop funk workout, making it simultaneously sexier and more futuristically dystopian. Similarly, “First We Take Manhattan” and “Everybody Knows” sprouted even greater rhythmic heft, turning into disco-party boogie monsters onstage. “Bird on a Wire” took on a much bluesier tone, with extended guitar interplay and churchy organ, while “Anyhow” exuded some of the smokiest jazz vibes Cohen has ever rendered. “Who By Fire” became utterly transformed by Javier Mas’ dramatic Spanish-inflected six-string interpretation – just one of Mas’ many astonishing virtuoso moments throughout the evening.
Cohen’s most radical reworking, however, was saved for his biggest hit, “Hallelujah,” whose arrival felt almost unexpected, introduced with offhand grace midway through the concert’s second half. Cohen started “Hallelujah” in understated fashion, seeming to deny the melisma-laden performances that have made it a TV singing-contest trademark; his delivery grew in force, seeing him drop to his knees as he lost himself in the song. His current treatment of “Hallelujah” belied a self-referential, deprecating wit that held sway over the entire performance. Throughout the night, Cohen perversely drew attention away from himself, thanking the members of his band numerous times, along with many others, including the monitor mixer and lighting designer. (Hello, Brian Patrick Murphy of Chicago!) He also encouraged lengthy solos and showpieces from his backing group – which includes the Webb Sisters on background vocals, his musical director and bassist Roscoe Beck, keyboardist Neil Larsen, guitarist Mitch Watkins, percussionist Rafael Gayol, multi-instrumentalist Mas, and violinist Alexandru Bublitchi – during which Cohen would doff his hat in respect. Of particular note, Cohen’s longtime backing singer and songwriting collaborator Sharon Robinson took the mic for an especially powerful rendition of “Alexandra Leaving” that resulted in audience rapture.
However, as much as Cohen seemed to willfully challenge his cult of personality, there was no denying who was at the center of this hurricane set evocatively and provocatively on simmer. From his signature fedora and dark suits, Cohen has become, like Johnny Cash, an eternally compelling explorer of human nature’s darker corners. He finished his set with the appropriately climactic “Closing Time” and its farewell lyric, “Now there’s nothing left/It’s closing time.” Regardless, even after Cohen told the crowd “good night” and the house lights went on, no one really believed he was going anywhere.