A truly great concert experience transcends our very being revealing uncertainties and desires in totality. Leonard Cohen is one of the few artists capable of providing a enlightening out-of-body experience; he delivers more than a show but a master's workshop on the magnificence and menace we stumble upon day-after-day. Cohen is more of a prophet than a performer as he effortlessly guides his audience through the shifting neighborhoods of their existence. Watching Cohen on the concert stage is largely unparalleled because he doesn't rely on any artifice other than the power of his songs and the sincerity with which they are delivered. On his recent stop through Chicago, at Rosemont's Akoo Theatre, Cohen performed thirty songs over the course of 190-minutes with a nine piece band who, along with Cohen's cavernous yet soothing voice, made you feel like everything you ever needed to know about life was right on that stage.
Opening the show was "Dance Me to the End of Love" which found Cohen's voice harmonizing with a tender violin and was delivered it from his knees which became a regularity throughout the evening. A slight organ fell upon a blues chord completing the picture of "Bird on the Wire" as his two aged hands gripped the microphone, his eyes closed and three backing singers beckoned the gates of heaven with their voices. "Who by Fire" featured a entrancing performance from Roscoe Beck on stand-up bass as his fingers slid up and down the neck not to show off, but as if he was seducing a woman. The lower register's of Cohen's voice send chills down our spines on "Everybody Knows"; the lyrical delivery was spoken rather than sung and yet it was transfixing. "Come Healing" from his latest record was a hymn of the body and spirit. The arrangements are not elaborately structured as Cohen's songwriting style comes from a pre-rock n' roll era. Despite this, his band towered over the material serving it adroitly and yet never eclipsed Cohen's meditative lyrics. They offered spacious arrangements while Cohen's lyrical flair for elegiac splendor thrived which is rivaled only by Bob Dylan. Another warming element of the evening was to see how enthralled Cohen was with his band. These aren't merely hired hands, but musicians he has a profound amount of respect for. He referred to them by name several times throughout the show Sharon Robinson's lead on "Alexandra Leaving" was soulfully sublime while the Webb Sisters divinely delivered ethereal vocals "If it Be Your Will", all while Cohen looked on from stage left standing up straight and hat off and over his heart in respect as the consummate gentleman. Cohen comes off like a esteemed scholar and professor whom we stand in rapt attention as he helps us navigate the intricacies of life. He's seventy-eight-years-old and puts more into the performance than ninety-percent of the performers today. You are transported through tunnels of wrenching depth on "Darkness" and eclipses of the moon on "Amen". You feel as if these songs have been living with you, your entire life, they offer a immense sense of comfort and familiarity. You may not know all of the songs, or only a handful, but the waterfall of emotions will pour over you and even the most jaded of souls will walk away with answers to what we thought was unanswerable.
After a brief twenty-minute intermission, the second set opened with "Tower of Song" which was uncomplicated with Cohen standing behind a keyboard with a backing drum track and yet you fall under its spell immediately. On "Suzanne" he reached back and found that same young man all those years ago who had written this song about adoring love. "Democracy" and "Im Your Man" are compositional skyscrapers that we stand in awe of simply gasping at not just their splendor but wondering how they were composed. If the mainset wasn't enough, he performed eight songs over three separate encores. "So Long, Marianne" (whom the Macnchester band James did a lovely cover of in the 1990s), "Going Home" from his stunning 2012 album Old Ideas, which confirms that his songwriting abilities are still leap years ahead of everyone with his only true peer being Bob Dylan. Old Ideas caputes his top tier songwriting with his more submissive arrangements. "First We Take Manahttan" was the closest the evening came to a arena rock moment with a bustling band galloping in tandem with one another. "Famous Blur Raincoat" and "I Tried To Leave You" fuses jazzy blues but the songs are so irrefutable they don't just grip the audience's attention, they also sweep them off their feet.
Leonard Cohen weaves tales of dreadfulness, slaughter, anxiety and elation like a mythic storyteller. There is a underlying genuineness in every lyric he's ever written and on the stage in the Akoo Theatre in Rosemont the evening was more than a performance, but was where his catalog became scripture plunging all of us into the deep waters of humanity. Every lyric was wrung from a poetic and personal experience and yet he personalizes it via unimaginable dimensions. His best known song "Hallelujah" was no exception; you may have heard the song before by someone else, but I can assure you, you've never heard it until you've seen Cohen on a concert stage sing it in a reasoning calm that feels like an answered prayer. As it began, Cohen was basking in the glow of a white light and he slowly made his way to his knees where he sung it like a last plea. The hymnal lyrics and the Cohen's affecting voice were in the front of the car navigating us through daylight, darkness, torrential downpours, blistering heat and moments of immeasurable magnificence there are simply no words in the human language that can capture the essence of it all. You want to fall to your knees and cry, stand up and applaud, grab the person closest to you and clench them as we feel the self-imposed chains drop to the ground. And to think Cohen's record company rejected the album that contained this song.
The concert stage is like a home Leonard Cohen, which he opens to us and proves to be a masterful host. His performances are a gathering of friends who instead of walking the halls and rooms of a home looking at carefully placed furniture we find ourselves is the subtlety spiritual of his songs. Cohen may look like a gentle seventy-eight year man but his subterranean supple baritone voice takes his audience on a tumultuous and holy passage. Despite the fact that many of these songs were written entire lifetimes ago, they came across as deep personal expressions. Cohen's learned experiences help inform us as we look upon his characters, stories and songs as conduits to our own frame of mind. When the last song had finished, "Save the Last Dance for Me"- a Drifters cover, the crowd was stirring as Cohen took his final bow and sprinted gallantly offstage. His physical presence may have left the room, but his songs, their words and above all else the sensation the songs fueled us with resonated with everyone in attendance. It's simply a experience that will never leave your being.
In Tribute: Leonard Cohen Live