Leonard Cohen at the Chicago Theatre | Photos and review
While many of us have stowed away a dusty place in our musical catalogs for folk artists from the '60s and '70s, every once in a while we’ll come across one who has been lucky enough to experience real career longevity. These rare performers often owe their success to having changed with the times, recording regularly and/or touring without fail. All but Leonard Cohen: a historically reclusive, stubbornly original poet and singer who continues to make some of his best music today, despite being born before Elvis Presley.
In his dark suit and fedora and voice that has plunged to an otherworldly timbre, the 78-year-old poet and singer began his Chicago Theatre performance Wednesday night with a rather cryptic hello, saying "I don't know if we'll meet again, but tonight we're going to give you everything we've got." Indeed, what followed was a masterful evening of storytelling.
The concert—which lasted all of three hours and included several encores—felt intimate despite a nearly full house and nine-person backing band. Cohen’s lyrics are just as cutting now as they've ever been, and he unraveled them throughout the night with measured intensity, focusing heavily on tracks from his recent album, Old Ideas. About an hour into the set, he slowed the pace of the already-somber evening down to a thrilling, halting moment with the spoken-word poem “A Thousand Kisses Deep,” uttering: “You win awhile, and then it’s done / Your little winning streak / And summoned now to deal with your invincible defeat.”
Then the hits poured out one after another: “I’m Your Man," “Hallelujah,” “So Long, Marianne,” and “First We Take Manhattan” among others. They all felt as powerful as ever, and Cohen, with his silhouette flickering above the stage as if lit by candlelight, delivered them with rapt presence. His vocal range may have withered slightly with time, but with lyricism so eloquent, it’s hard for songs like those to fail. Their traditionally spare structures were made lush with backing strings and a trio of female vocalists swaying in time.
Cohen is every bit the witty fatalist, and his characteristic solemnity—plus that grave, austere voice—had a bittersweet appeal. Standout new songs such as “Amen” and “Show Me the Place” showcased this to the utmost. Cohen also didn’t lack for humility. He crawled on his knees and sang. He cherished his applause. He handed the floor to his backup singers (and writing collaborator Sharon Robinson) for several songs, and honored his fellow musicians by removing his hat during their solos and introducing them several times to the audience. He even thanked the entire tech crew by name.
Cohen may still may grapple lyrically with themes of disillusionment and heartbreak (or “humiliations suffered”), but he’s also cheered up a bit over time. He snuck some humor into Old Ideas, such as in the song “Anyhow,” which drew laughs: “Have mercy on me, baby,” he sang. “After all I did confess / Even though you have to hate me / Could you hate me less?”