Cohen still brings it, with nuance and grace

By Sarah Rodman
Globe Staff / June 1, 2009
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A review of Leonard Cohen in concert could consist of nothing but perfect couplets from his esteemed body of songs, each a world unto itself, and still not get at the depths of what transpired onstage. The quiet power, the original hipster cool, the resonant voice simultaneously evoking angels and demons, the unerringly tasteful nine-piece band attuned to Cohen's every lyrical nuance, the mordant humor, and amazing grace.

Stepping into the Citi Wang Theatre Friday, for the first of Cohen's two consecutive nights there, was like crossing the threshold of a grand and elaborately decorated mansion mid-party. You could almost imagine each room housed a guest offering wicked, witty, or wise advice on the ways of the world.

The only piece of advice the impressively lithe 74-year-old (who occasionally skipped about the stage and frequently went down to his knees) imparted during the bountiful three-hour-plus performance was to stay away from those lighted, magnifying hotel mirrors. Good advice.

Otherwise, 15 years since his last visit to Boston, Cohen and his band, operating in the same lite jazz-rock neighborhood as Steely Dan but with more focus on ambience than groove, dedicated themselves to the music.

Although he's generally lauded not as a vocalist but rather for his songwriting skills, Cohen's deep, chalky voice was a glorious thing. Whether he was pushing it to its limits on his most famous song, the majestic and oft-covered "Hallelujah"; applying sinister edges for the cynic's anthem "Everybody Knows"; or simply reciting the dark poetics of "A Thousand Kisses Deep," it was the perfect instrument.

The attentive crowd bathed him in ovations and cheers at the ends of classic lines in famous songs including the vivid and devastating epistolary "Famous Blue Raincoat," the suddenly hopeful sounding "Democracy," and the dark sweep of "First We Take Manhattan." Cohen reciprocated with hat-on-his-heart gratitude.

If there's a quibble to be made, it's that, as tastefully as it was played, the music sometimes felt edgeless and occasionally alarmingly close to smooth jazz. But given the sharp lyrical shards roiling beneath the placid surface, maybe that was a necessity. There was no quibbling, however, with the band, which played with suppleness and telepathy, especially the chameleon-voiced trio of backing vocalists.

Part of the impetus for this tour stemmed from Cohen's recent financial problems, yet never has a performer seemed less like he was doing it for the money. As he told the crowd, "With so much of the world plunged into suffering and chaos, it is a real privilege to gather with you and the music." The feeling was mutual.

Sarah Rodman can be reached at

LEONARD COHEN At: Citi Wang Theatre, Friday

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