At the age of 78, Leonard Cohen doesn’t merely saunter out onto and off the stage as one might expect – he trots. He stays there for a little over three-and-a-half hours (including intermission), assuring all that “we’re going right to the edge of the curfew.” He thoroughly surveys a catalogue spanning some 45 years to this day, all with the same label (Columbia). And Monday night at the Nokia Theater, he captivated, charmed and conquered a sold-out audience, hardly seeming to break a sweat in the process.
Cohen started touring again in 2008 after a 15-year absence from the road, and his current European/North American tour in support of his latest, characteristically dour, highly absorbing album “Old Ideas” (released in January) seems essentially an extension of the earlier tour. Yet the show wears very well, tailored impeccably to Cohen’s brooding persona in sight and sound, easily folding four songs from the new album into the lineup.
The way Cohen was lit — with his trademark Stetson fedora and craggy profile illuminated in blue or fiery orange — was almost as important to the impact of his songs as his subterranean, gravelly bass voice. The tempos were predominately slow, the pace expansive and unhurried, allowing all the time in the world to unfold and draw you in. Beginning in the 1980s, an endearing brand of dark, dry humor drifted into Cohen’s act — hand-in-hand with his descent into the bass range — and his Russian-Jewish roots were never far away in his music, sometimes bubbling right to the surface. Old classic songs like “Suzanne” sound much better in Cohen’s current voice than they did when he was in his 30s, and the newer ones hold up well against the old.
It is hard to recall seeing a showman who is more considerate and gracious to his audience than Cohen. Only two numbers into his show, he ordered the house lights turned up so that latecomers could be seated (wryly commenting, “I’m sorry that we started the show on time!”) and then, for their benefit, reprised the last verse of the second song, the darkly prophetic “The Future.” Much later in the second half, he did it again, repeating the first song, “Dance Me to the Edge of Love” for those who missed it. The sound was excellent – and thankfully, not overly loud – again, a mark of respect for his fans.
This may have been Election Day eve, but Cohen never mentioned it. He didn’t have to. He merely let some of the songs speak for themselves — especially “Democracy,” which gets a lot of airplay on liberal talk radio in between segments and whose repeated ironic line, “democracy is coming to the U.S.A.,” got a big hand.
With his versatile, unified band and immaculate three-part vocal harmonies by the Webb sisters and frequent songwriting collaborator Sharon Robinson, Cohen had one of the most comfortable cushions a performer could ask for. And his early greeting was especially poignant, laced equally with mortality and the joy of communing with his audience: “If we do not meet again, I promise I will give you everything we’ve got.” He did.