With a fedora shadowing his eyes and a sharp suit accenting some spry dance steps, the 78-year-old Leonard Cohen played many roles Friday before a full house at the Akoo Theatre in Rosemont: gentleman caller, graying patriarch, undertaker, assassin, penitent, screw-up, song and dance man.
Cohen added a few more variations in “Going Home,” one of 30 songs he performed in a concert that spanned 3 1/2 hours (including intermission): “I love to speak with Leonard/He’s a sportsman and a shepherd/He’s a lazy bastard/Living in a suit.”
The baritone singer can be wickedly funny, often at his own expense. After a rinky-dink keyboard solo during “Tower of Song,” the tepid audience applause brought a wry smile to Cohen’s face: “You know the blues when you hear them.”
Jokes and the occasional keyboard solo aside, his songs endure. He chisels his words until they can hold up independent of the music, which is as good an explanation as any for why he tours and records so infrequently – no song will be released before its time. Little wonder his songwriting is revered by everyone from filmmaker Robert Altman (whose 1971 Western “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” featured several Cohen classics) to Kurt Cobain and Michael Stipe.
Cohen’s earliest music had a stripped-down, folk flavor, built on little more than the rich, subterranean hues of his sing-speak vocals and acoustic instruments. Over time, he’s cheesed things up on record with keyboards, synthesizers and other gratuitous glop. Though he wrote “Hallelujah,” one of the greatest songs of the last half-century, his original studio version feels leaden compared to superior, less ornate cover versions by John Cale and Jeff Buckley.
The singer’s touring band – which included six musicians and three backing singers – can also come off a tad too tasteful for the unadorned grit many of these songs demand and deserve. But the instrumentalists’ understated style suited Cohen’s delivery, and their transglobal reach touched on East European gypsy flavors, flamenco, blues, gospel and the swing jazz of the opening “Dance Me to the End of Love.” Backing singers Charley and Hattie Webb delivered a plaintively moving version of his “If it be Your Will.”
Bending a knee or removing his hat while Javier Mas unfurled an oud solo or Alexandru Bublitchi weaved on violin, Cohen often appeared as though he were dispensing or receiving sacraments on stage. His music brims with biblical imagery, cut with Old Testament menace, deceit and blood.
“The Future”? Cohen’s seen it, and “Baby, it is murder.” It’s a world view that may seem impossibly bleak, if not Apocalyptic. Indeed, Cohen seemed to take special relish in enumerating everyday corruption in “Everybody Knows,” rolling his shoulders like a boxer readying an uppercut. But the song is less about cynicism than chopping away illusion. Whether the patriot-dissenter in “Democracy” or the broken lover in “Hallelujah,” the characters in Cohen’s greatest songs arrive without frills or sugar-coating.
It’s fascinating to watch as Cohen faces the toughest truth of all: Death. He ignores the typical crutches of the aging poet, the dying-of-the-light songs that solemnly ponder mortality. Instead, the narrator in “Anyhow” is a crusty scoundrel, gently mocked by his backing singers. Forgiveness just isn’t possible at this late stage: “I know you have to hate me, but could you hate me less?”
Cohen made the most of his limited voice and dapper, unruffled demeanor. He was the low-key charmer, the understated raconteur, the gracious band leader who introduced his accomplices and then kept re-introducing them, as if fearful the audience might forget their names. And yet in the middle of all this first-class, old-world showmanship were songs that needed no extra drama beyond the weight of Cohen’s voice and the conviction he put behind it. The imperfections made it.
“There is a crack, a crack in everything,” he sang, “that’s how the light gets in.”
Leonard Cohen set list Friday at Ikoo Theatre:
1. Dance Me to the End of Love
2. The Future
3. Bird on the Wire
4. Everybody Knows
5. Who by Fire
7. Ain't No Cure for Love