“Best Easter ever.”
That was the roar that came from the balcony Saturday night at the Louisville Palace as Leonard Cohen wound down an elegant yet almost mercurial version of So Long, Marianne.
At that point, Easter Day was still an hour or so away. But given the strong spiritual components that drove some of Cohen’s finest songs, such an audience boast seemed to hold water. Of course, the often Zen-like reserve and politeness that surrounded the veteran songsmith’s performance played their parts, too.
Throughout this extraordinary 3½-hour program, Cohen wore one hat (a stylish fedora, an accoutrement also adopted by most of his band members and stagehands) but played many roles. Depending on which song from his 45-year recording career was dialed up, Cohen portrayed elder romantic, poet philosopher, enlightened mystic, jazz hipster, socio-political correspondent and, yes, even dirty old man. At age 78, he has won the right to inhabit all of those roles.
Sonically, though, the performance was a feast. Cohen’s eight-member band served as an orchestra of sorts, coloring each song with what can best be described as a lush hush. Veteran pop-soul keyboardist Neil Larsen’s Hammond organ leads, which regularly shifted from the churchy to the soulful, along with the solos of Spanish guitarist Javier Mas (who also played cittern-style banduria and the lute-like archilaud) provided much the exotic cool behind songs like Darkness (one of six works performed from Cohen’s 2012 album Old Ideas) and Tower of Song.
But the evening’s musical makeup wasn’t without its quiet indulgences. Complimenting Cohen’s wispy baritone was the support of an ultra-tasteful vocal trio made up of Sharon Robinson and sisters Charley and Hattie Webb. Quite often the three deviated from traditional harmony singing and served almost as a Greek chorus to some of Cohen’s deeper, darker songs. “Get ready for the future; it is murder,” Cohen sang with quiet doomsday bravado during the title tune from his 1992 album The Future. The beautifully distanced reply from the vocal trio was as succinct as it was sleek: “Do do do.”
But as worldly as songs like The Future were, as spiritually forthcoming as works like Hallelujah seemed and as regally poetic as chestnuts like Bird on the Wire still sounded, Cohen wasn’t above going low. Anyhow was all sly carnal deviousness, with Cohen singing his decrepit come-ons (“Even though you have to have to hate me, could you hate me less?”) with the sort of whispery sleaze that brought Frank Zappa’s I’m the Slime to mind. There was also the pure after-hours joy of Closing Time, an anthem that simply signaled the arrival of further misadventure.
Perhaps the wildest aspect of the show was how youthful and gracious Cohen appeared. He regularly descended to bended knee to sing, placed his fedora over his heart when a particular solo struck him and seemed genuinely apologetic when announcing to the crowd early into the show that co-guitarist Mitch Watkins was substituting for the recently hospitalized Roscoe Beck (the band’s musical director) on bass.
“I hope you won’t feel any disgrace to the enterprise,” Cohen said.
Not a chance. With Easter (the best one ever, mind you) at hand and songs that thematically ran from the basest urges of earthly desire to contemplations of redemption, Cohen was the epitome of sage, poetic grace.