Leonard Cohen is kneeling as he sings. This might make sense for a song like "If It Be Your Will." But Leonard Cohen is on his knees when "Dance Me To The End Of Love" starts the show. He returns to this position throughout the night. Sometimes he's praying, sometimes he's pleading with a lover. Sometimes he is begging forgiveness, and sometimes he is too exhausted to get up. Is this Cohen's idea of showmanship?
Or is it those moments when he shuffles to and fro, his arms clenched like Rock 'Em Sock 'Em robots? The kneeling and the semi-motionless dancing are things I could imagine Cohen doing, moves developed over forty years of Zen monasteries and world tours—the real surprise is how gleefully he skips off stage waving his fedora in his hand before every break in the show, like an impeccably dressed rock skimming across water.
Early on in the evening, before he begins singing an intimate version of "Bird on a Wire" with the mic cradled between his hands, Cohen tells the audience, "I don't know when we'll meet again, but I promise you tonight we'll give you everything we've got."
Cohen performed 29 pieces, including three encores, over three hours at Radio City Musical Hall on Sunday night, accompanied by six musicians and three sirens on his Old Ideas 2013 World Tour. I use "pieces" and not "songs" because they included a recitation ("A Thousand Kisses Deep"), a few introductions of poetry, and two solo spotlights for those backup singers ("Alexandra Leaving" for Sharon Robinson; "If It Be Your Will" for The Webb Sisters); I also use it because Cohen is the only major musician this side of Henry Rollins who walks the tightrope between spoken word performance and 'folk singer who just discovered his first synth.' (That last part may not pertain so much to Rollins.)
All of which is not to takeaway from the music—on the contrary, the backing band's au natural lineup (dobro, violin, electric guitar, hammond organ, upright bass, brushes!) lifts the shackles of the (sometimes stiff) studio arrangements. It's especially important because the majority of the set comes from Cohen's later albums, I'm Your Man (6 songs), The Future (5 songs), and Old Ideas (6 songs). The fact that those first two contain some of his mightiest, holiest songs—the kinds of songs that will inspire thousands to try to write similar songs, the kinds of songs no one has any business emulating—was always slightly undermined by the stilted, hermetic arrangements. It was as if Cohen was keeping a certain segment of would-be fans at arms length: he was born like this, he had no choice, and neither did you.
As a result, just about every song benefits from a naturalistic approach in the live show. "Show Me The Place" has that same skip in its step as its writer does prancing off stage; "Anyhow" gets plucked from some smoky jazz club in Berlin; "Ain't No Cure For Love" is practically bouncy. The synths are kept to a minimum, only making their appearance when absolutely necessary: "Tower Of Song," "Waiting For The Miracle," and the most un-sensitive moment of the evening, "First We Take Manhattan," the only time the concert felt remotely like a rock show.
But the majority of the show had little to do with rock. "Who By Fire," with its long spanish guitar intro via Javier Mas, conjures up the spirit of being in synagogue during the High Holy days. Cohen has learned to ease off the chorus of "Hallelujah," which is propelled by a church organ but carried by those angelic female singers—to his credit, Cohen might not sing it like Jeff Buckley, but he always intimately understood the carnal desire lurking beneath those secret chords requires a much gruffer narrator. And special attention should be given to violinist Alexandru Bublitchi, whose playing invoked the mood of Cohen's under-appreciated late '70s work, and added considerable sweetness to songs like "Take This Waltz."
Between the kneeling, the shuffling, and the skipping, Cohen was much lighter on his feet—much more energetic—than I had expected. He's been taking his own advice, it seems: "Lighten up Cohen, for crissakes," he said before launching into "Ain't No Cure For Love." "How long are you going to pout?" When the crowd goes nuts at the tinkling piano of "Tower of Song," Cohen smiled and cracked, "Are you humoring me?" before showing off his ability to do a piano roll.
Despite a crowd whose median age was over 45, barely any seats emptied out as false ending after false ending passed over the course of the night. The night could have come to an end happily with "Closing Time," Cohen's humorous take on a bacchanalia at the local bar. But he galloped onstage one last time for the appropriately bluesy "I Tried To Leave You," which gave all the musicians a chance to show off for a few extra minutes. Cohen stood, hat in hand, before skipping offstage one last time.