Review + Setlist: Leonard Cohen at the Chicago Theatre, Wednesday, May 6

May 7, 2009 at 2:33 am

At 11:15 p.m., just before Leonard Cohen left the stage after performing nearly three hours of music, he locked arms with his six-piece band and trio of female singers. The packed Chicago Theatre crowd stood rapt as he started to say his farewells. After an a cappella reading of "Whither Thou Goest," a Bible-inspired song popularized by Guy Singer, he imparted some wisdom of his own. It went approximately like this:

"I hope in your life you are surrounded by friends and family," the white-haired, suit-clad Cohen said, his gravelly speaking voice not far from his baritone vocal intonations. "And if you aren't, I hope that you are happy in your solitude."

Making reference to the torrential rains that plagued Chicago earlier in the evening, he warned patrons to be careful, adding "and if you fall, I hope you fall on the right side of luck."

The 74-year-old Cohen finally seems to be after a tough few years, which found him fighting in court with an ex-manager over missing funds, a battle that halted his musical momentum. But he was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2008, and this current U.S. tour, his first in fifteen years, is drawing rapturous reviews.

Still, it's hard not to consider the tour a farewell of sorts -- or at least a last hurrah. But Cohen certainly gave the audience its money's worth. He literally skipped on and off stage before each set -- one 75 minutes, one 50 minutes -- and three encores, totaling 45 minutes. Defying bad knees or hardwood floors, he tended to perform kneeling close to the stage, crouched so only the top of his fedora was visible. Occasionally he marched in place (and resembled a gaunt penguin in the process), while other times he did a little jig-dance, which made him seem like a cute grandpa.

For older material such as "Suzanne" and "The Gypsy's Wife," he strapped on a guitar - and for "Tower of Song," he looped a cheesy keyboard beat and plucked out a dinky melody on a synthesizer. (In the middle of the song, he also thanked the audience for being so kind to tolerate the music, just one example of his dry humor.) Cohen delivered "A Thousand Kisses Deep" as a bewitching poem instead, while the dark, dense "Everybody Knows" was another highlight. The playful "I'm Your Man" ended with a lone white spotlight focused on Cohen - a hallmark of the tasteful, simple light show.

But Cohen's strongest instrument is his voice, a wearied-by-life low rumble that he's grown into perfectly. The subtle inflections, the quick turns of phrase, the naked emotion, the poetic descriptions - his words dart and crackle, vibrant in their loneliness and lust, curled by romantic longing and burned by love lost. Like Tom Waits without the self-conscious quirks, Cohen growled for the underdogs -- the line "You fixed yourself, you said, 'Well never mind, we are ugly but we have the music'" from "Chelsea Hotel #2" drew spontaneous applause - and comforted the oppressed (a rabble-rousing, '80s-rock-ish "Democracy," the most upbeat tune of the night).

Musically, the full band accompanied his voice perfectly, playing beatnik blues-jazz, Spanish-inflected rock and even the occasional touch of soft-glow R&B. Surprisingly, the retro sound rarely detracted (save for an occasional Miami Vice-ish sax part, or an organ that wandered into cheesy), which is a testament to their talents - and Cohen's ability to reinvigorate his studio songs in a live setting

The respect and deference Cohen showed to this fantastic band - including long-time collaborator/current band leader Roscoe Beck and Barcelona native Javier Mas, who added flair and textures with banduria, laud and archilaud - permeated the night. If a player soloed, Cohen removed his hat and listened intently to the performance. He introduced his band twice, made sure to acknowledge collaborator/vocalist Sharon Robinson for her writing credits and had backing vocalists the Webb Sisters interpret "If It Be Your Will," which they did with golden harmonies.

The gesture was kind but also significant, because cover songs have kept Cohen's words vibrant over the years. (Later in the night, in fact, he humbly thanked people for keeping his songs alive.) And like Dylan, Cohen's words have become so familiar and ingrained in the culture, they might as well be considered traditional. Still, it was a treat hearing the originator tackle these iconic tunes. The epistolary "Famous Blue Raincoat" found him bathed in warm blue light, calmly reciting the lyrics, while "First We Take Manhattan" became a jazz-blues march full of ominous, vague threats and a sinister subconscious.

And then there was "Hallelujah." By this point, it's hard to imagine the song as Cohen's, because so many people have made it their own. But he delivered it with no more fanfare than he did, say, "So Long, Marianne" - except for the fact that his voice swelled loudly and forcefully through the chorus (in conjunction with the stage lights, which burned to white at the crests of emotion). Wisely, he let the audience's memories and connotations of the song instead of his own interpretation carry it forward, ensuring that it had maximum build and impact.

In the end, it's hard to really describe seeing a fantastic show by a legend, especially one whose talent stems from intellectual rigor and emotional depth instead of brute-force rock or giant universal pop songs. And Cohen is the rare artist whose music inspires emotionally, intellectually and romantically -- without being maudlin or didactic. He's an artist who articulates the private self, actualizing the silent parts of a person's hopes, fears, shame and longing.

Perhaps he's such a gifted wordsmith because he's acutely aware of his own mental gifts and accompanying anxieties. After all, this tour finds him grateful to even be performing his music - a fact he subtly nodded to by thanking the audience several times over for their hospitality.

In the end, that's the one thing he didn't get quite right: No, Leonard. Thank you.

Setlist: Set One: "Dance Me To the End of Love" "The Future" "Ain't No Cure for Love" "Bird On the Wire" "Everybody Knows" "In My Secret Life" "Who By Fire" "Chelsea Hotel #2" "Waiting For the Miracle" "Anthem"

Set Two: "Tower of Song" "Suzanne" "The Gypsy's Wife" "The Partisan" "Boogie Street" (Sharon Robinson vocal) "Hallelujah" "I'm Your Man" "A Thousand Kisses Deep" (recitation, no music) "Take This Waltz"

Encore One: "So Long, Marianne" "First We Take Manhattan"

Encore Two: "Famous Blue Raincoat" "If It Be Your Will" (Webb Sisters) "Democracy"

Third Encore: "I Tried to Leave You" "Whither Thou Goest"