Back in that day, a concert review was a primo piece of creative writing, or so the author thought. Flush with sensory overload, he would fire off full clips of syllables at elusive evaluation, hopeful of flushing a covey of insights from their lair in his subconsciousness.
Sentences like that one usually happened instead.
The concert review of the present day necessarily suffers by comparison to the past because the form has stuck around so long. Ask a baseball writer how tough it is to come up with a new angle on covering the great American pastime. He’ll tell you there are plenty of outstanding players out there, but not many ways to extol them that haven’t been used before or to better effect. It is the same with the business of show, except that there are a lot more good minor league franchises operating there.
Ordinarily I would not trouble you with another performance memoir. The problem is, I cannot stop thinking about a show I saw the other night. Leonard Cohen played the Fox Theatre in Atlanta and the recollection will not leave me be.
Most of you know Leonard Cohen only by association, if at all. A published poet who started singing for a living in 1966 despite a famously limited vocal range, he has written marvelous songs that only rarely became big chart hits for their interpreters; “Bird on the Wire” for Joe Cocker, “Hallelujah” for Jeff Buckley, “Suzanne” for... Noel Harrison. Despite tangible fame, he seems always to have been on the scene, save a stretch in the Nineties when he threw it all away and entered a Zen monastery, taking the Buddhist name Silence.
Cohen has performed only occasionally in the U.S. during his career (he is a far bigger draw in Europe) and was drawn into his current two-year global tour only because his personal manager looted his retirement fund while Cohen sought Enlightenment at Mount Baldy. Despite infrequent tours, Cohen has consistently made time for Atlanta, having appeared there in 1975, 1988 and 1993.
I caught him at the Great Southeast Music Hall in ’75; I’m sure I wrote a glowing review for somebody. I recall he began with “Bird on a Wire” and stayed close to that tempo all night. I found his deliberate exposition of his songs ideally suited to the compositions as well as to my demeanor. I remember it was a long drive back through the speed traps on old Highway 78.
In 2009, I didn’t know quite what to expect. Walking into the Fox, I thought I’d suddenly contracted glaucoma, so translucent was the air. It wasn’t smoke, as in the old days, but something the producers pumped into the room, perhaps to confound Flip cams, perhaps to evoke the presence of ghosts. The crew was tight; the ushers operated under symphony rules, instructed to seat no one after the show commenced until a third-song break.
Promptly at eight, the entertainers strode onstage, and in a bubble of light the poet doffed his hat to the crowd, looking like the clothing store owner his father once was. Cohen was thin and gray and poised for some sort of action.
“Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin,” he crooned from the center of the stage. “Dance me through the panic till I’m safely gathered in. Lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove, dance me to the end of love.” Here Cohen mixed the ingredients for the evening: a jigger of desire, a dash of bitterness, a sprinkle of amusement, served straight up. Was this music for a wedding or a wake? The poet was dressed for either. “I assure you it is our intention to give you everything we’ve got tonight,” he told the standing throng at the end of the tune.
He spoke in the plural, for the presentation was a thoroughly collaborative effort. The stage was anchored left and right by yin and yang; Javier Mas and Dino Soldo on libidinous stringed instruments and woodwinds, the Webb Sisters, Hattie and Charlie on ethereal harmonies. Cohen was surrounded by instrumental excellence, with a rhythm section of Roscoe Beck and Rafael Gayol, cool licks from guitarist Bob Metzger and organist Neil Larsen, plus the soulful contributions of vocalist Sharon Robinson. They drew no undue attention to themselves — well, Hattie and Charlie did turn cartwheels during “The Future” — but served the needs of the songs in a manner reminiscent of far more famous ensembles. Add to this virtuosity the fact that the music was mixed perfectly for the room, at exactly the right volume for songs dependent on lyrical clarity, and we approached concert perfection.
Here is what transformed the night: Cohen was unfettered. I don’t know if the rousing success of this tour so close to the end of life cheered him, whether the years at Mount Baldy had indeed endowed him with enlightenment, or if it was just that the old roué was still getting the eye from beautiful women, but he was no longer chained to the weight of his songs. He dropped to his knees in supplication, he raised his hands to the heavens, he danced around the stage and skipped off — skipped! — when it was time for a break. He imbued every lyric with purpose and shook the foundations of the theatre with his unmistakable baritone.
Last year, I questioned the wisdom of inducting a Canadian folkie into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. After witnessing three transcendent hours of cabaret from the hereafter, I think I get it now. They already had all the rock they could use. They needed Leonard Cohen for the roll.
Courtney Haden is a Birmingham Weekly columnist. Write to email@example.com.