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Arts and Entertainment

Leonard Cohen @ the Nokia 04/10/09

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Photo by MuzikSpy at New York's Beacon Theater via flickr

Leonard Cohen owns the stage at the Nokia Theater. Cohen is dapper in his grey suit, fedora and bolo tie, a look few men can pull off without it being obvious they are trying too hard. Cohen does not fit the suit. The suit fits him. He looks like he would be equally at home in either a smoky bookie joint or at the high rollers table.

It almost seems as if Leonard Cohen was born an old man. Even Cohen joked to the sold-out house, "It's been a long time since I last set foot on stage at the tender young age of sixty." This is a fortunate happenstance for the singer, as he does not have to try to hit the high notes of a younger man. Leonard Cohen has finally grown into his deep, sensuous, whisky-soaked voice. His performance was simultaneously subdued and intense. During particularly moving moments, he fell to his knees like a man used to kneeling, his aged alabaster hands held to his face as if clutching the memory of a cigarette

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The concert at the Nokia last night started at 8pm on the dot, leaving a long trail of anxious fans snaking all the way along the courtyard. By the time we entered the theater halfway through "No Cure for Love", we had missed "Dance with Me" and "The Future."

He then worked his way through his classics -- "Bird on a Wire", "My Secret Life", and "Anthem". The arrangement and vocal stylings rarely veered from his recordings. They did not need any tweaking; they were sheer perfection. By the time he finished the first set with "Waiting for the Miracle" he had the audience in the palm of his hand, many of them moved to tears. Three and a half hours later, by the fourth encore, no one appeared to be going anywhere.

For the second set, Cohen returned to the dim, monochromatically lit stage with "Tower of Song." In fact, it could even be described as mood lighting. It was subtle and romantic, sometimes washing over the band with fine sepia tones. It was the first concert I have attended where the Nokia Theater did not attempt to blind the audience with flashing lights aimed straight into our retinas.

The sound was also as crisp and clear as it has been to date. Either Nokia has found the bugs in the system, or the Nokia Theater was meant for the likes of Cohen rather than the likes of the Who. The sound quality enabled the audience to truly appreciate the fine musicianship of Cohen's backing band as they meandered through his delicate Eastern-European-inspired arrangements. Particularly notable was the bandurria player, Javier Mas, whose music was showcased throughout the concert.

From Cohen's finely pressed suit, to the lighting and the sound, every aspect of the show was impeccable. He was also exceedingly generous. Being that he only comes around every 15 years or so, he made sure the rapt audience got their money's worth. He was also generous with the band, introducing them by name twice and allowing each their moment in the sun musically with short solos.

Cohen did something unusual during the set and stepped back twice to allow the backup singers to take center stage. His collaborator and co-writer on a number of tunes, Sharon Robinson, showed her incredible range with "Boogie Street." Cohen used The Webb sisters' angelic harmonies to symbolically become his voice for "If it be Your Will"

If it be your will
That I speak no more
And my voice be still
As it was before
I will speak no more
I shall abide until
I am spoken for

Cohen's songs are woven with themes of judgement and redemption, confession and forgiveness rife with religious symbols. As in the often-covered "Bird on a Wire"

Like a baby stillborn,
Like a beast with his horn
I have torn everyone who reached out for me
But I swear by this song
And by all that I have done wrong
I will make it all up to thee

Other recurring symbols and subjects are dancing, light, gambling, flight, and death. And of course, love. It always comes back to love, sex and infidelity. As he loses himself in the music, one gets the impression that for him, these lyrics are not only words. In some way, for Cohen, these songs are religion. They are therapy. They are sex.

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Cohen's religious themes and poetic, old-fashioned phrasing are in strong juxtoposition to his occasionally prurient subjects. When he speaks of naked women, the word "naked" still has power; there is still a sense of stark nakedness. In fact, Cohen's self-assured gunfighter delivery, his persona of part jazzman and part mobster gives his songs about women a sensuality even in their cruelty. He is the stylish and charismatic rogue that all of the women want. He will break your heart, but he will be a gentleman about it.

If he sings of his own cavalier attitute towards love in "I'm Your Man"

Ah, the moons too bright
The chains too tight
The beast wont go to sleep
Ive been running through these promises to you
That I made and I could not keep

He also has experienced the double-edged sword of desperation, as in "Everybody knows"

Everybody knows that you love me baby
Everybody knows that you really do
Everybody knows that you've been faithful
Ah give or take a night or two
Everybody knows you've been discreet
But there were so many people you just had to meet
Without your clothes
And everybody knows

"Everybody Knows" is an example of Cohen at his most pessimistic, but it is not an anomoly. Cohen's music is dark. It delves into the shadowy reaches of the human psyche. He explores our human weaknesses and failings. But no matter how deep the music takes us, there is a ray of hope. The song "Anthem" reveals that even within the flaws one finds purpose:

There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in