Live Review: Leonard Cohen at the Nokia Theatre, April 11

There are swinging dicks and there are swinging dicks, but when your star power is of such magnitude that it uproots the highest echelon of celebrities to come down from The Mount to see you perform, chances are you’re the biggest swinging dick of them all.

Such a case can be made for Leonard Cohen, who entertained the likes of Sting and Dustin Hoffman, among others, during his sold-out, two-night stand at the Nokia Theatre last weekend.

Now 74, Cohen, who has been touring regularly since last year, is clearly making the most of his remaining time on earth by reminding the masses that his passed urine possesses more talent than most mortals could hope to whiff in their lifetime (see above, re: adoring celebrities).  To that end, more than a few patrons commented before, during and after the show that they were in attendance because “he’s not going to be around that much longer.”  And after being swindled out of a fortune by his former manager (who hasn’t?), it would be hard to fault Cohen if he were out to do a twilight-of-his-career money grab before retiring to a life of grappa and afternoon naps.  However, by the looks of him on this evening, not only is Cohen going to outlive most of the planet, he’s likely to dance on graves and write excellent songs about the experience before his time comes.

Cohen-cella.  Leonard took his audience on a three-hour tour of his career last weekend.  A three-hour tour (photo by the author).

Cohen-chella. Leonard took his audience on a three-hour tour of his career last weekend. A three-hour tour (photo by the author).

Barely more than a wisp clad in a suit and bolo tie under his fedora, Cohen bounded on stage at show time, coming to rest on one knee to begin the night with a serenade in the form of “Dance Me To The End Of Love.”  Just in case anyone thought that might be just a tease of the good stuff, he followed up with “The Future,” “No Cure For Love,” “Bird On A Wire” and “Everybody Knows” in succession, ensuring that “everybody knew” he wasn’t there to mess around.  In what would be the first portion of a career-spanning triptych of nearly 30 songs lasting almost three hours, he managed to squeeze in “Chelsea Hotel No. 2,” “Waiting For The Miracle” and “Anthem” before taking a little break, no doubt to wrestle idle security guards in the alley behind the theatre before returning to the stage.

Like Bob Dylan or Lou Reed, Cohen is one of those guys you’re supposed to like, though it might not be apparent why on the surface.  To be sure, some of Cohen’s recorded works haven’t aged particularly well – in part due to the arrangements and tastes of the eras within which they were originally captured – with dated sounds sometimes making it difficult to get to the heart of his songs (I’m Your Man’s synths, anyone?).  But on this occasion, backed by a sextet of refined musicians and a trio of female vocalists, his catalogue benefited from a contemporary facelift.  The unified sound — simultaneously jazzy and subdued, sorta similar to Sting’s last four albums, minus the ear-ass – was the perfect foundation for Cohen’s trademark baritone voice and the words borne upon it.

An exception to that presentation would come at the start of the second set, which Cohen kicked off by firing up some Casio keyboard stylings to re-create “Tower Of Song,” solo but for his backup singers.  Somewhere in Dublin, Bono must have simultaneously shivered, having hoped that song – which U2 shamelessly mined in the form of Zooropa’s “The Wanderer” — was long forgotten by Cohen and the rest of the world.

Cohen trotted out a few more champions, including “Suzanne,” before the night’s inevitable re-re-re-re-revisitation of “Hallelujah.”  It’s impossible to ignore this now-signature Cohen number was little-known by any other than the devoted before Jeff Buckley’s affair with it in the 90s (let’s be honest, John Cale’s widely heard cover on the 1991 Cohen tribute album I’m Your Fan didn’t exactly set the world ablaze with re-discovery).  Now, several years and several crap-tacular versions later (including aberrations by would-be American Idol Jason Castro, Kate Voegele and Bon Jovi, to name just a few), Cohen’s made lengths to reclaim his baby.  In his most animated performance of the show, he rambled around the stage, over-enunciating the “you”’s in each verse (an obvious shot at all the pretenders’ unimaginative “ya”’s) and howled a full octave above his normal range during the choruses, winning the hearts of the gathered and earning him an instant standing ovation at song’s end.

And while “Hallelujah” was the obvious crowd favorite, it was Cohen’s naked recitation of “A Thousand Kisses Deep” that was the show-stopper.  Cohen was first a poet before a musician, and that was no more apparent than during this piece, a confessional expression of appreciation to a lover from a man past his prime, appreciation from someone coming to terms with the fact that his physical self can no longer keep pace with his passions.

Slightly crouched with one hand holding the mic in front of his face and its partner clenching the cord slightly below and beside it, Cohen resembled a boxer most of the night, perhaps not uncoincidentally — given both his personal history and the pugilistic wordplay of his songs.  Sure enough, by the time Cohen closed out his second set, most of the audience must have felt as it they had gone 10 rounds with him, shifting their weight and getting ready to head for the door.

But Cohen wasn’t done with them yet.  For those who had the strength, nine more songs awaited them in various encores which included “So Long, Marianne,” “Let’s Take Manhattan,” “Famous Blue Raincoat,” and comically, “Closing Time” and “I Tried To Leave You.”  Even “Democracy” was included, which might have seemed too on-the-nose, except that Cohen released it in 1992, long before anyone heard of George W. Bush or Barack Obama.

Were it not for American culture’s consistent bad taste, Cohen could potentially achieve “mainstream cult” icon status in the same way posters of Johnny Cash flipping the bird grace dorm room walls and London Calling album art has found a home on t-shirts of those 10 and under. But despite ownership of the lone wolf underdog qualities America embraces with regularity, Cohen is simply too austere, too educated, too…honest to reach through to those who inhabit a nation founded on violence.  In a place where the mainstream population makes great efforts to represent itself as capable and experienced, there’s no time for someone who actually is.  In terms of popularity, Cohen’s downfall is that he’s too much like the older, wiser uncle with the mysterious scar – and not everyone wants to hear from someone who knows better.

Through the show, Cohen’s infrequent addresses to the audience were sort of comical sorbets breaking up the procession of dark-hearted intelligence that’s become his artistic calling card.  It was sincerity, however, that marked his final moments on stage.  “Be lucky,” he said.  “Be surrounded by friends and family.  “And if these blessings not be yours, may these blessings find you in your solitude.”

Spoken like a true gentleman.

Public Service Announcement: A huge plus on this evening was the fact that the purportedly laudable sound at the Nokia Theatre, the much-ballyhooed gem in the ersatz crown that makes up AEG’s L.A. Live facility in downtown Los Angeles, was actually excellent for a change.

On the minus side, at the set break, when about only half of the house got up for their respective piss/smoke/beer breaks, it literally took 10 minutes to make it out to the main lobby, a reflection on the venue’s poor conception (the crappy blue lighting throughout the premises – which not even Dade County would allow within its borders –notwithstanding).  Granted, the median age of the audience was probably 1,000, and they moved at an appropriately corresponding speed, but god forbid there’s ever a fire or earthquake while there’s a show in that place — because everyone’s gonna fucking die.

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