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Hallelujah for Leonard Cohen

Posted by James Reed  May 30, 2009 06:17 PM

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Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

By Sarah Rodman
Globe Staff

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 last night (the show repeats tonight) was like crossing the threshold of a grand and elaborately decorated mansion mid-party, where 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 after 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 not lauded 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 for the job.

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

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10 comments so far...
  1. Funnily enough, Leonard Cohen is adored in Paris, where he will play the Stade de France, the biggest sport stadium in the country, in July. (Show s already sold out.)

    "Everybody Knows" is sheer genius; i could go on and on about others. As does Sarah Rodman, i strongly recommend him, especially for couples.

    Et bonjour de Paris, Globe, où j'ai travaillé 20 ans.

    Posted by James Finkenstaedt May 30, 09 08:54 PM
  1. Superbly written review, Sarah. Made me long to have been there.

    Posted by Jeff May 30, 09 10:25 PM
  1. I had a wonderful time!!!! It was the first time I've seen him perform live and I was highly impressed. He was generous to his band and gave them nice solos.

    Posted by Charlie May 31, 09 01:11 AM
  1. I was one of the lucky lifelong fans who attended Leonard Cohen's concert in Boston on Friday night. What strikes me is the intimate relationship that built over the years between the artist and his audience. His music moved and mesmerized a generation. We were there to see, to hear, to love and to honor him. Leonard Cohen was greeted with a standing ovation before he sang a word and came back for at least four encores including a hauntingly beautiful rendition of an all time favorite, IF IT BE YOUR WILL. One other thing amidst the soulful, the mournful, the praise, the erotic confidences, and the endearing moments of self-deprecation is his amazing sense of humor and irony. This was a most memorable night and I am still giddy. Fantastic show!

    Posted by Sandra Goroff May 31, 09 02:40 AM
  1. agree with all your comments about the brilliance of the concert ( I went saturday night) but to say that this approached smooth jazz is to insult the unbelievable talent and originality of the band- each amazing musicians in their own right. And together the sound was jazzy but entirely original, unique and exquisitely rich.
    You really missed that part in your review...

    Posted by deborah Perry May 31, 09 11:03 AM
  1. My words cannot compare with those of Sarah Rodman's. Her review aptly and beautifully compliment our feeling about Leonard Cohen and his spiritual performance on Friday night. We had seen him two weeks ago in Waterbury, CT, and debated endlessly the cost of seeing one more time. We are a retired couple and for us it was a big deal, but Leonard Cohen's songs and his wonderful band/singers are for us the ethereal equal of what religion tries to provide. Thank you for such a thoughtful, caring and well written review.

    Posted by Joseph & Susan Behl May 31, 09 01:22 PM
  1. Amazing concert !!! like no other, more like a musical play, zen like, a testiment to love and life... Hallelujah

    Posted by dennis ledford May 31, 09 01:45 PM
  1. incredible energy for a 78 yr old smoker.

    Posted by bator May 31, 09 02:31 PM
  1. This Leonard Cohen concert was a phenomenon, with one stunning & brilliant song after another. Having recently heard a wonderful Paul Simon concert, but with an older Simon no longer in great voice, I expected this even older Leonard Cohen -- never even the singer Simon was -- to be less effective than his recordings. But his voice was as strong and clear as all but his earliest recordings, and delivery was a knockout. This audience demanded over 5 encores: "I didn't come to Boston just to fool you," sang Cohen.

    Posted by Jim from the Blackstone Valley May 31, 09 04:06 PM
  1. I have been following Leonard Cohen concert reviews since I saw him in Seattle in April. I have been trying to figure out how to convey how effecting this show was; how to put in to words something that felt so transcendent to me? It seems no matter how many superlatives I string together I can't come close.
    Good Job Ms.Rodman. Kudos! Your review comes the closest to describing the ineffable beauty of this performance. Press "print".
    I went as an admirer. By intermission I felt privileged to be alive in this era, and in the presence of such an awesome talent. Like watching Michelangelo paint! By the shows end, stomping and whistling I was ready to drink the kool-aid ; ).

    Posted by Rebekah Johnson, Portland, OR. May 31, 09 10:04 PM

About Sound Effects

The latest news, commentary, and reviews on music in Boston and beyond.


Sarah Rodman is a staff music critic for the Boston Globe.

James Reed is a staff music critic for the Boston Globe.

Jonathan Perry is the Globe's Scene & Heard columnist, covering local music.

Michael Brodeur is the assistant arts editor for the Boston Globe, covering pop music, TV, and nightlife.

Julian Benbow is a staff writer at the Boston Globe, covering sports and music.

Katie McLeod is's features editor.

Rachel Raczka is a producer for Lifestyle and Arts & Entertainment at

Emily Wright is an Arts & Entertainment producer at