Leonard Cohen returns to Chicago (5/5)

placeholder image

    Leonard Cohen had been pretty high on my “must see” list; at 74, the Quebec born singer/songwriter/poet/novelist/artist hadn’t stopped in Chicago for 15 years, and at seven I couldn’t really afford the ticket. And having to wait another 15 years, when Cohen’d be 89, doesn’t sound like a particularly good plan.

    Luckily, I didn’t have to wait. Cohen’s trip across the country landed him at the Chicago Theatre in front of a huge and diverse crowd, complete with fans from the old days and us youngsters getting our first chance to glimpse the living legend in action.

    “I never go to concerts anymore,” an anxious middle-age woman confided to me. “Not after the ’80s. But I said to myself, only Leonard Cohen.”


    And holding off for Cohen proved to be completely worth it, I’d assume. After battling through the dense clouds of perfume and mobs of overdressed yuppies, I found a seat in the ornate theater. After listening to a short burst of chitchat about an architecture reviewer of some kind, Cohen finally jaunted onstage in a black suit and matching fedora. In fact, every member of the band AND every member of the crew wore a sharp, classic ’60s gangster outfit.

    After the audience got tired of standing and clapping for one of the greatest living folk artists, Cohen and his band stepped into “Dance Me To The End of Love”, the first of what would wind up being 26 songs, including the three and a half encores. Surprisingly spry for a man his age, Cohen danced the wobbly, patented “old man shuffle” as the band kicked the song together. This, like many of the songs to come, was done at a loopy pace, most of them wallowing at about the tempo of Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart”, the drum patterns falling somewhere close.

    Cohen frequently got on one knee, seemingly talking to his bandmate’s guitar, or wandered over towards the three backing vocalists, hands raised to his face. Once he assigned the attention to a particular band member, the stage seemed set on them until they’d had a moment of their own. Each musician was granted a few solos; the wind musician’s clarinet and sax solos seemed sugary and ridiculous, the Hammond organ routinely cheesy; two of the backing vocalists performed synchronized cartwheels; the disco beat for “First We Take Manhattan” pulsing as three female vocalists added “oohs” and “aahs” under the old man. It all seemed so strange and surreal. Like The Flecktones or Poi Dog Pondering putting together a karaoke tribute to Cohen and finding him up to sing all his old songs.


    Despite all this, it was still Leonard fucking Cohen running the show, so I felt perfectly comfortable looking past it all. If he wanted to show the world how great the musicians were, who am I to stop him?

    He rumbled through a sparse “Bird on the Wire”, graveled a stellar performance of “Chelsea Hotel #2”. His second set opened with the stellar “Tower of Song” and the classic “Suzanne”.

    But the showstopper was the legendary “Hallelujah”. It’s been done countless times by other musicians, but nothing could possibly top this performance. Cohen’s ultra-deep bass boomed every line. “It’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah” Cohen intoned, bringing or nearly bringing every audience member to tears. This was quickly followed by “I’m Your Man”.  When he got to the chorus (“Here I stand. I’m your man.”), the crowd was awash with hollers and cheers.


    After the second set, no one would have accused Cohen of not living up to their expectations. But it turned out that the man had more comebacks in him than Michael Jordan (or, to put it more topically, Brett Favre). The first encore garnered “So Long, Marianne”. The second came with “Famous Blue Raincoat”.

    The opening song of the third encore perfectly and ironically encapsulated the evening. “I tried to leave you, I don’t deny it,” Cohen boomed out to the last row.  Thankfully, he couldn’t leave before finishing out his third encore, along with a long, exaggerated thank you to everyone that helped put the show together, including the people that took care of the band’s hats.

    That’s exactly the kind of show, and the kind of guy Cohen is. Long, detailed, powerful, emotional, but with a sharp, witty edge. Always ready with a one-liner after delivering a moving, sincere piece of business.


    First Set:
    01. Dance Me to the End of Love
    02. The Future
    03. Ain’t No Cure for Love
    04. Bird on the Wire
    05. Everybody Knows
    06. In My Secret Life
    07. Who by Fire
    08. Chelsea Hotel #2
    09. Waiting for the Miracle
    10. Anthem
    Second Set
    11. Tower of Song
    12. Suzanne
    13. The Gypsy’s Wife
    14. The Partisan
    15. Boogie Street
    16. Hallelujah
    17. I’m Your Man
    18. A Thousand Kisses Deep
    19. Take This Waltz
    First Encore
    20. So Long, Marianne
    21. First We Take Manhattan
    Second Encore
    22. Famous Blue Raincoat
    23. If It Be Your Will
    24. Democracy
    Third Encore
    25. I Tried to Leave You
    26. Whither Thou Goest