The 78-year-old man in the suit and fedora jogged to the centre of the stage, because no one told him not to. He knelt on a rug as he sang in a husky half-croon, “dance me through the curtains that our kisses have outworn; raise a tent of shelter now, though every thread is torn.” Outworn kisses, torn threads – and yet Leonard Cohen, the bleak man of terminal passion and a dirge-ready bent, is warmer and jauntier on stage than his pained repertoire would seem to advertise. Dance him to the end of love? My man, you lead.
“I didn’t sing for 15 years, and now you can’t get rid of me,” he said early, referring his consistent world touring since 2008. “We might not see each other ever again, but, tonight, we’ll give you everything we’ve got.” Big cheer, naturally – the same applause he receives every time he says it. Almost all his stage banter is to script, tried and true stuff, well-rehearsed as if his audience was a just another giant mirror. He’s not trying to fool anyone, though. He’s just, as he freely admitted, paying his rent every day in the tower of song.
The arena wasn’t completely full for the first of two nights in Toronto, but the turnout was more than respectable. Cohen’s latest album, this year’s Old Ideas, was warmly received critically, and his band wove nimbly all night and swung with a little gusto when required. Cohen’s no band leader – he’s just the guy with the words, and with a peaceful charisma to him.
More than once he sank to his knees in front of the 12-string guitarist and sometimes bandurria player Javier Mas, who added a Spanish folk-music vitality to the arrangements. Fiddler Alexandru Bublitchi was an elegant, emotional companion to Cohen’s even-keeled baritone.
The star attraction doffed his hat in appreciation to his three angelic singers (all in dark blue pant suits, possibly secured at an airlines supply depot) and to the other agile band members as well. The nod to guitarist Mitch Watkins’s bluesy panache on Bird on the Wire was one of those well-deserved moments.
Of course, what many came for were those words. Suzanne soared gently, with Cohen’s silhouette a giant behind him he strummed an acoustic guitar and sang about sinking beneath wisdom, “like a stone.”
We can smile at his gentle wickedness and find delight in his spiritual ordeals. The future is murder, everybody knows the boat is leaking, and the days of shame are coming. It all sounds divine, from the poetic Montreal man who was born with “the gift of a golden voice.” And didn’t we all at least smile at Cohen’s self-appraisal as a “lazy bastard living in a suit,” from the lightly funked Going Home, which followed the sing-along So Long, Marianne during the first of two encores.
Of course it all ended with Closing Time, a boozy, upbeat send-off with a line about a voice that “sounds like god to me.” No one follows that, except that Cohen will do it all again on the same stage on Wednesday. Another dance, then, for the two-stepping septuagenarian smoothie.
Leonard Cohen plays Ottawa’s Scotiabank Place, Dec. 7; London’s Budweiser Gardens; and Kingston’s K-Rock Centre, Dec. 13.
Dance Me to the End of Love
Bird on the Wire
Who by Fire
Ain’t No Cure for Love
In My Secret Life
A Thousand Kisses Deep
Tower of Song
Waiting for the Miracle
I Can’t Forget
Feels So Good
Alexandra Leaving (sung by Sharon Robinson)
I’m Your Man
Take This Waltz
So Long, Marianne
First We Take Manhattan
If It Be Your Will (sung by the Webb Sisters)