Austin, Texas, November 2, 2012
Leonard Cohen launched the North American leg of his world tour onNovember 1 and 2 to two sold out shows at the Bass Concert Hall in Austin, Texas. Cohen, with the assistance of his musical director Roscoe Beck, assembled a world-class nine-piece ensemble to accompany him on tour dates which began last summer in Canada and then continued on to eastern and western Europe in the fall. They played in New Zealand and Australia earlier this year before coming back to North America for a two-month jaunt across the states.
Cohen, a sprite and limber 74 year old, moves around stage effortlessly, kneeling down as if in prayer numerous times throughout the three-hour show, dancing through the instrumental solos, and skipping on and off stage in between sets and multiple encores. His performance simultaneously invokes the debauchery of a cabaret and the reverence of a monastery. His presence is austere and lighthearted, serene and uplifting, humble and magnificent.
Cohen is well known for his dapper choice in wardrobe. He wears his signature uniform, a tailored suit, fedora, and bolo tie. His entire supporting cast is dressed equally to impress in crisp shirts, suits, and fedoras, newsboy hats, or berets. Even his technicians and road crew wear black pants and shirts and sport fedoras and ties. The stage design is simple and elegant with long, sheer layers of curtains that are lit throughout the show with a beautiful display of light, color, and shadow.
As one would naturally expect from a class act like Leonard Cohen, the level of talent backing him on stage is nothing short of breathtaking. The entire ensemble is noteworthy, each musician is a significant and massive talent in his or her own right. Native Austinite Roscoe Beck, musical director and bass player, has worked with Cohen since the 1979 recording Recent Songs. Sharon Robinson, a long time collaborator and co-writer of numerous Cohen songs, is a powerful presence on stage with her rich alto voice; Rafael Gayol is a masterful and highly finessed percussionist who also has a history in Austin; Neil Larsen raises the B-3 up to new levels; Bob Metzger brings a wonderful blues dimension with guitar and pedal steel; and Hattie and Charley Webb really do sing (and look) like angels. For me, there are two particularly exceptional highlights – Spanish guitar virtuoso Javier Mas and the young master of multiple brass and woodwind instruments Dino Soldo. Mas is undeniably sophisticated and inspired in his instrumentation, with his exotic rhythms and sounds of traditional Spanish string instruments weaving seamlessly throughout Cohen’s compositions with a rare and awe inspiring sensibility. Soldo’s range in terms of his apparent musical and spiritual depth and his mastery of multiple instruments is astonishing; his presence on stage outshines even the brightest of his already brilliant peers; and his saxophone solos are an occasion to lose yourself, just so he can lead you back again.
Cohen and his band open the show with “Dance Me to the End of Love” with its sultry intro and rolling Spanish rhythms. The sound is magnificent, perfect balances of B-3 and wind, 12-string and bass, airy vocal harmonies and perfectly understated drums. Cohen kneels in front of Mas as he masterfully strums the 12-string guitar, Cohen crooning in his baritone voice, “Oh let me see your beauty when the witnesses are gone… Dance me to the end of love.” Cohen instantly and effortlessly has the crowd captivated on a journey that will conclude more than three hours later.
“The Future” comes next, complete with the cartwheeling Webb sisters who throw in a bit of gymnastics without missing a beat in their sublime vocal accompaniment. Soldo opens “No Cure For Love” with a beautiful tenor sax solo. He is an electrifying talent, effortlessly switching from tenor saxophone to an electric wind instrument, to chromatic harmonica, to keyboards and backup vocals, to bassoon and bass clarinet, all while dancing and moving to the music with a look of divine possession on his face.
The audience cheers as the band plays the first few notes of “Bird on a Wire” with its soulful Hammond B-3 riffs, Spanish guitar accents, and angelic backup vocals. Cohen closes his eyes, raising his face toward the sky, in reverence, as he takes off his fedora and places it over his heart during Metzger’s electric guitar and Soldo’s sax solos.
Next we hear “Everybody Knows,” with its B-3, pedal steel, and Spanish guitar; “My Secret Life,” is followed by a brilliant performance of “Who by Fire,” with Mas performing a haunting intro on the archilaud, Cohen on guitar, Charlie Webb on harp, Beck on upright bass, and Larsen on a particularly inspired B-3 solo. The crowd applauds as the band begins “Chelsea Hotel,” and Cohen gets a thunderous cheer after the line “You told me again you preferred handsome men but for me you would make an exception.” Cohen continues playing guitar on “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye,” which features Soldo on an unforgettable chromatic harmonica solo.
The music pauses and Cohen says, “It’s been a long time since I stood on a stage in America, it’s been about fourteen or fifteen years. Back then, I was sixty years old, just a kid with a crazy dream.” The crowd laughs and cheers. He continues, “I turned myself toward a deep study of the philosophies and religions, but cheerfulness, cheerfulness kept breaking through.” The crowd goes wild again. He continues, the audience hanging on each of his words. “It’s not looking good out there friends, and some are saying it’s going to be worse than Y2K. [crowd laughs] We are so privileged to be able to gather in moments like this when so much of the world in plunged in darkness and chaos. We gather here in peace and a celebration of the heart, so ring the bells that still can ring, forget our perfect offering, there is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
During “Anthem,” Cohen introduces his band. “From Barcelona, on bandurria, laud, archilaud, and 12-string guitar, Javier Mas. On vocals, keyboard, and the instruments of wind, the master of breath, Dino Soldo. The signature of soul, the architect of arpeggio, on electric guitar and pedal steel, Bob Metzger. Our timekeeper, the high priest of precision, Raphael Gayol. On keyboard and the legendary Hammond B3, the impeccable Neil Larsen. On vocals and composition, my collaborator, the incomparable Sharon Robinson. On vocals, harp, and gymnastics, Hattie and Charley Webb, the sublime Webb sisters. On vocals, stand up base and electric base, our musical director, our shepherd and our conscience, from Austin, Texas, Roscoe Beck.” As the band finishes the song, Cohen skips off stage for intermission.
After intermission, Cohen skips back onto the stage to take his place behind his keyboard for “Tower of Song,” accompanied only by a sampler, the Webb sisters and Sharon Robinson on vocals, and Larsen on the B-3. With the push of a button, Cohen starts the song and then plays a charmingly clunky keyboard solo. The crowd cheers wildly, to which he replies, “You are very kind.” Cohen pleads to the women to keep going with their angelic “doo dum dum dum da doo dum dum’s.” “Don’t stop,” he says, “Oh please, don’t stop, I’m not ready to go on to the next thing. [crowd laughs] Ahhh sing me down to sleep angels, sing me through the bitter morning. I am gathering myself, we’re all gathering ourselves, we are all healing ourselves, it’s almost done,” to which the ladies kindly oblige until Cohen proclaims, “We are healed, thank you.”
The rest of the band comes back onstage for “Suzanne.” Mas opens with a beautiful intro on the bandurria for “The Gypsy’s Wife” and Soldo performs another wonderful harmonica solo. “The Partisan” follows, and then Robinson takes the lead vocals for “Boogie Street” with her rich, soulful alto voice. The verses are punctuated by Soldo’s lilting tenor sax. Cohen then begins the first verse of “Hallelujah” to the crowd’s enthusiastic cheers. It is arguably his most widely known and recognized composition, and many younger fans discovered Cohen through other artist’s cover of this song.
Cohen woos the crowd with “I’m Your Man” and then performs a solemn recitation of “A Thousand Kisses Deep” before ending the second set with “Take This Waltz.” Cohen thanks the audience and then skips off stage followed by his band.
The crowd is on their feet, roaring applause, and the band comes back on stage and Cohen comes out skipping for his first encore, “So Long, Marianne” and “First We Take Manhattan.” Off he goes skipping again, to more thunderous applause and a standing ovation, and then skipping back onstage, we get a second encore with “Famous Blue Raincoat,” “If It Be Your Will,” featuring the Webb sisters on vocals, harp and guitar, and Larsen on B-3, followed by “Democracy.”
Then we hear the beginnings of a very special debut of a new unreleased song, “Lullaby” which is a down tempo tune with a triplet feel that weaves an exquisite dance of slide guitar, harmonica, and B-3 while Cohen croons, “When it’s much too late, and we’ve taken our stand, when they call out your name, we’ll go hand in hand. If your heart is torn, who can wonder why? If the night is long, here is my lullaby, here’s my lullaby.”
And then he goes one more time, skipping off stage with a beaming, childlike playfulness and another wild standing ovation. For the final encore, Cohen sings “Closing Time” and “I Tried to Leave You,” to which the crowd laughs at the ironic relevance of the opening line. Each of the band members gets one last solo as this haunting dirge sprawls out to nearly ten minutes long. The crowd soaks up every second of it.
For the final curtain call, Cohen has his entire crew join the band on stage to sing “Whither Thou Goest” tutti a capella while he offers the following thanks and blessing, “On behalf of the band and the crew… the sound, the lights, our technicians, all of them musicians in their own right, on behalf of the drivers, the wardrobe keepers, and the delightful woman who looks after our hats, on behalf of everyone who keeps this show on the road, and on behalf of the musicians with whom I am so privileged to play, I want to thank you for this memorable evening, we will not forget it easily.
“I don’t know when we’ll meet again. Until then, take care of yourselves. May you fall on the side of luck, may you be surrounded by friends and family, and if none of these is yours, may the blessings find you in your solitude. Thank you so much friends, goodnight, take care.”
And with that, Leonard Cohen takes his final bow, with his devoted band and crew lined up behind him, and he walks, his hand and hat over his heart and his head bowed, back into the shadows.
written and photographed by Laura Lea Nalle, all rights reserved