Ladies and Gentlemen, opening for the serene and poetical Mr. Leonard Cohen this evening: the brilliant and genteel Mr. Leonard Cohen.
At Merriweather Monday night, under skies that might be called “Coheneque” — cold, rainy, despairing, but not without a solitary beauty — the spry 74-year-old* songwriter’s songwriter glided on-stage at 7:35, and sang for 65 minutes. Yes, sang. Save your jokes. He’s heard them all, and written some of the better ones himself.** After a half-hour’s intermission, he returned to perform for another hour-forty, a headliner’s set in its own right. All told, he offered more than two dozen impeccable numbers from a tower of song that reaches back four decades.
But the arrangements? Peccable, alas. With nine musicians joining him onstage, the temptation to drown Cohen’s meticulous language in flaccid lite-jazz instrumentation was constant. Too often, it was irresistible: The “Dance Me to the End of Love” that opened the show didn’t need one sax solo, much less two.
Javier Mas’s banduria was a consistent, welcome exception amid the bloat. His lithe Mediterranean flourishes never felt like they were competing with Cohen’s stiff but authoritative baritone, which is perhaps why the great man addressed so many of his down-on-one-knee serenades to Mas. The star was happy to share the approbation, graciously introducing the band not once, but twice.
Still, the night’s best performances were its least ornamented: A spare, haunted “Suzanne”, with cartwheel-turning sister-singers Charley and Hattie Webb accompanying Cohen’s denuded rasp. The poem “A Thousand Kisses Deep,” recited with barely any instrumentation at all. “Famous Blue Raincoat,” still aching with betrayal. If the entire show had been as strong as the three encore sets (!) that comprised its final half-hour, the gig would have been one for the books. Instead, it played more like a microcosm of Cohen’s career: Long, with moments of staggering beauty interspersed among dormant stretches.
Before a stirring “Anthem” to close the first set, Cohen observed “We’re so privileged to gather like this, with so much of the world plunged in chaos and suffering.” Which is, roughly translated, Canadian poet-turned-monk-speak for “Throw your hands up and make some noy-oiiiise, Maryland!” A shed like Merriweather is an outlier on a tour itinerary that has Cohen playing mostly theatres in the U.S., doubtless a better fit for his moody, midtempo introspection. But the ensemble, resplendent in sharp suits and arrayed in front of a curtain bathed in gold or violet or crimson as the mood required, managed to conjure something of a nightclub atmosphere despite the incongruous surroundings.
*He’s seven years older than Bob Dylan. He’s got nine years on Mick Jagger or Keith Richards. He’s 15 years older than Bruce Springsteen. He is 18 years older than all three Jonas Brothers combined. It’s been 21 years since he first sang the line, “I ache in the places where I used to play.” He is old. Get over it, please.
** From “Titles,” published in Cohen’s 2006 Book of Longing: “the title singer / was kindly accorded me / even though / I could barely carry a tune.”