His lyrics combine wordliness, wisdom, sly self-deprecation, biting sarcasm and the righteous rage of an Old Testament prophet, sometimes all at once: Who else could pull off a line like, "Everybody knows what you've been through/From the bloody cross on top of Calvary/To the beach of Malibu"?
Cohen's touring band provided a perfect setting for his voice -- the
literal and the literary. His trio of backup singers, occasional
collaborator Sharon Robinson and the Webb Sisters, made up for his lack
of vocal range. The six musicians, all of whom play multiple
instruments, provided a harmonious backdrop that enhanced, rather than overshadowed, Cohen's words (particularly the guitar and mandolin player Javier Mas). They also rescued the songs from
the cheesy overproduction that nearly ruined his albums from the
eighties. During the show, they each took generous solos, and Cohen listened, holding his hat humbly in his hand.
St. Louis has been waiting for Cohen for a very, very long time. Saturday night was
the first time
in his 40-year career that he visited
here. The crowd at the Fox ranged from young hipsters to people who
probably bought Cohen's first LP when it came out back in 1967. Many of them had dressed up (some of the men wore fedoras, just like Cohen himself) and they all greeted him with a standing ovation and punctuated the concert with several more. This was not just a show -- this was a pilgrimage. One woman left a dozen roses at the foot of the stage and gasped audibly when Cohen picked them up and cradled them against his shoulder.
Cohen seemed to know and appreciate this. He accepted the adulation by removing his hat and bowing his head. "I don't know when we'll pass this way again," he said, "but it's our intention tonight to give you everything we got." He wasn't kidding.
He and the band played for more than three hours. His impeccably-cut black silk suit remained unwrinkled (Cohen's father was a tailor) and he barely seemed to break a sweat. Bear in mind the man is 75 years old, though he might not believe it himself: In "I'm Your Man," he sang, "If you want a different kind of lover, I'll wear an old man's mask for you." He didn't merely walk on- and offstage for intermission -- and the encores, he pranced.
(Combined with Bruce Springsteen
's set two weeks ago, this is shaping up to be the season when the geezers give the young punks a thorough ass-whupping.)
Since this was a pilgrimage, Cohen gave the audience exactly what they wanted: the old hippie favorites "Suzanne" and "So Long, Marianne," and the more recent "Everybody Knows," "First We Take Manhattan" and "Dance Me to the End of Love," all of which he must have performed thousands of times by now, but which sounded as fresh as if he and the band had come up with them that morning.
"Chelsea Hotel #2" in particular acquired extra resonance live. The audience chuckled when Cohen sang, "You told me again you preferred handsome men, but for me you would make an exception", but the song, in his old-man voice, came off like an elegy, particularly the ironic final line, "That's all, I don't even think of you that often."
There was new music, too: "The Darkness," which Cohen introduced earlier on this tour. He delivered it in his Old Testament prophet mode, though its apocalypticness was marred somewhat by the band's jazzy noodling. (They did not make that mistake with "Who By Fire," which is adapted from a prayer Jews say during the High Holidays when they speculate about their fate for the coming year. It was far more scary and sobering in the splendid, luxurious Fox than it ever was in synagogue.)
And yes, there was "Hallelujah." After Jeff Buckley, after its endless replaying in the movies and on TV (and, yes, in college dorm rooms and twentysomething apartments when the inhabitants are feeling particularly torn up and self-pitying about love affairs gone bad), one would expect the song to have lost some of its power.
But when Cohen dropped to his knees and sang, "Remember when I moved in you and the holy dove was moving, too, and every breath we drew was Hallelujah," it all came rushing back: the mixture of love and lust and God and doubt and loss. Like the best poetry, Cohen's songs make connections and drive your thoughts someplace unexpected and even shocking and on Saturday night, "Hallelujah" could still bring on a chill.
"Good night my darling," Cohen intoned at the very end, surrounded by his band. "I hope you're satisfied....Here's a man working for your smile."
And the crowd was satisfied. And everyone left smiling.
"Dance Me to the End of Love"
"Ain't No Cure for Love"
"Bird on a Wire"
"In My Secret Life"
"Who By Fire"
"Chelsea Hotel #2"
"Waiting for the Miracle"
"Tower of Song"
"Sisters of Mercy"
"The Gypsy's Wife"
"I'm Your Man"
"A Thousand Kisses Deep" (recitation)
"Take This Waltz"
"So Long, Marianne"
"First We Take Manhattan"
"Famous Blue Raincoat"
"If It Be Your Will"
"I Tried to Leave You"