Gig Review: Leonard Cohen, Opera House, Manchester, 18th June 2008

This was undoubtedly our most anticipated gig of the year, not just because tickets cost a whopping £80 but also because this was our first and probably last chance to see one of the few musicians we would both call a “living legend” before he finally retires for good. From the reception that Leonard Cohen got when he bound onto the stage, it was clear that everyone else in the audience, from grandmothers to grandkids, were looking forward to it just as much, as, it seems, was Cohen himself, who looked genuinely humbled by the applause and cheers.

Our main concern for the evening was the condiditon of Cohen’s voice. On his last album, Dear Heather, it sounded shot, with most songs either spoken word or his vocals drowned out by the backing vocals. With the first line of “Dance Me To The End Of Love” our worries were assuaged, his careworn voice sounding impossibly deep and rich, and satisfyingly high in the mix.

Much of the set came from his ’80s and ’90s output, with I’m Your Man and The Future particularly well represented, the latter’s title track being an early highlight. His nine-strong backing band were all musicians of the highest quality although the arrangements erred on the side of sophisticated lounge jazz. Cohen was understandably proud of his charges and you might be forgiven for thinking that Alzheimers had set in such was the frequency with which he name-checked them. The slightest fart from Dino Soldo’s saxophone would bring on an introduction and the obligatory applause from the audience. Despite the presence of more than one too many sax solos, the band did a fine job, playing with great restraint, solos notwithstanding, and allowing Cohen to remain the centre of attention throughout. Of particular note was Javier Mas’ masterful playing all manner of acoustic stringed instruments of varying shapes and sizes.

Older songs from Cohen’s ’60s and ’70s heyday were rearranged sympathetically to retain much of their original magic. “Bird On A Wire” and “Who By Fire” were tender treats early in the set while “Suzanne” and “Sisters Of Mercy” were very close to their sparse originals with Cohen picking out melodies on his acoustic guitar, albeit with less certainty than he did forty years ago. Less successful was the arrangement for “Hey That’s No Way To Say Goodbye” which was rather heavy-handed for my liking but there was a storming version of “So Long Marianne” to make up for it.

The undisputed highlight of the evening was “Hallelujah” which saw Cohen reclaim the song for himself from the million or so cover versions out there. The superb backing vocals from long-time collaborator Sharon Robertson and the Webb Sisters, Hattie and Charley, lifted the song to stratospheric heights and prompted a prolonged standing ovation from the audience at the song’s conclusion.

Cohen himself was a delight throughout, joking with the crowd that the last time he toured he was 60-years-old, “a kid with a crazy dream”. There were wry smiles at the recital of some of the more poignant lyrics: “I was born with the gift of a golden voice” from “Tower Of Song”, played with just Cohen on synthesizer (complete with one-finger solo) and the three backing singers, brought cheers from the crowd and a self-deprecating shake of the head from the man himself – who’s he trying to kid? The cries that greeted “If you want a doctor, I’ll examine every inch of you” from “I’m Your Man” suggested that there plenty of other septuagenarians in the room who did indeed require a doctor.

Only in the encores did things begin to flag with the band introductions becoming a little tiresome during “Closing Time” and “I Tried To Leave You”. The version of “If It Be Your Will” played and sung by the Webb Sisters should really have been played during the main set, if at all, instead of the encore when the audience was crossing their fingers for the likes of “Joan Of Arc” and “Take This Longing”. Despite this we still wanted the performance to go on and on but the fourth encore, a beautiful rendition of “Famous Blue Raincoat”, was as good a place as any for Cohen to call it a night, signing off with “Sincerely, L. Cohen” before the band piped up with a brief, a capella “Wither Thou Goest?” to end a perfect evening. Gig Of The Year. So far.

Video: Gypsy Wife by Leonard Cohen, from the gig

Leonard Cohen – Hallelujah

Leonard Cohen – Tower Of Song

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