Commander Cohen leads his troops to new heights
by Jeremy Miles
Leonard Cohen: Bournemouth International Centre
Singer, songwriter, performer, poet and sometime monk, Leonard Cohen defies expectations… even for those who have loved his words and music for decades. The opening night of his UK tour in Bournemouth last night (Monday August 26) was a magical affair that left the capacity audience dizzy with admiration. They’d been expecting an exceptional concert but this was something else.
Cohen, whose career as a poet and performer spans almost 60 years (his first book was published in 1956) led his ten piece band through a sublime three-and-a-half hour set that delivered landmark numbers new and old. From Suzanne and Bird on the Wire to new songs like Darkness, Amen and Going Home from his latest album Old Tricks.
Somewhere in between there was material from across the years. Extraordinary lyrics honed to perfection then sharpened still further by amazing arrangements and exemplary musicianship.
Stand out tracks came thick and fast: The Future, Everybody Knows, Take This Waltz, I’m Your Man, Hallelujah, Chelsea Hotel #2, So Long Marianne, Famous Blue Raincoat, Closing Time…the list goes on.
The band, with musical director Roscoe Beck on bass, excelled as both virtuoso musicians and fine collaborators. It included Neil Larson on keyboards, Mitch Watkins on guitar, Rafael Gayol on drums, Alexandru Bublitchi on violin and Javier Mas on a variety of Spanish guitars, mandolins and exotic stringed instruments. Between them they delivered music that, with elements of klezmer, jazz, blues and latin, cocooned Cohen’s deep, deep vocals in a sound that could be soothing,melodic and absolutely cutting edge all at the same time. With beautiful vocals from sometime co-writer Sharon Robinson – given her own solo spot on Alexandra Leaving – and the glorious Webb Sisters, Hattie and Charley, the unique Cohen sound was complete.
Booted and suited, Cohen – who celebrates his 80th birthday next year – jogged onto the stage doffing his trademark fedora. Elegant and gracious in a performance that plumbed searing observations of love, life and human frailties, he moved effortlessly between sombre reverence and joyful celebration, dropping to his knees in supplication skipping and dancing and offering an eloquently humorous commentary. Not bad for a man who celebrates his eightieth birthday next year. This was a performance of the very highest order. Among the best I’ve ever seen. At the very least it confounded the oft-cited gloom-merchant stereotype that has been Cohen’s burden since the 1960s when he was routinely dismissed as the bedsit troubadour of choice for those planning to slash their wrists.