Last Night He Took Manhattan
My Sunday morning began with me lamenting to Alison that maybe I should have bought one of the very expensive tickets to see Leonard Cohen at Radio City Music Hall that night. Not ten minutes later I received an email from a friend whose mother couldn’t go to the show and was looking to give away the ticket. I jumped on it and Alison jumped on Craigslist and managed to snatch up a ticket at face value. I had intended to do more of a formal write-up but if past behavior is any indication, if one doesn’t go up in 24 hours, it usually doesn’t. Fortunately, I just fired off a note to my parents recounting the concert. I’m including it below. Also, the full set list along with photo and video is available at Brooklynvegan.
The concert was amazing. My ticket put me a little bit to the left of the center in orchestra in row K, about 35 rows back which was actually pretty far. Radio City is beautiful and the sound was absolutely the best I’ve ever heard in my entire life. I’m not sure if it was the acoustics of the room or the sound people for Leonard Cohen, but there was a separation or space between he instruments that allowed them to come through so purely and in tremendous detail. Totally pristine – better than the live recording done in London on this tour which I’d bet was recorded directly from the soundboard (which incidentally is how some “new” good recordings of Dylan at Newport were done so no big booing sounds).
The band was incredible and big but not huge – bass, lead guitar, flamenco guitar, keyboard, woodwinds, backup singers. Look at the track listings for his Live in London album. That’s pretty much what he played with a few subtractions but also Chelsea Hotel. The audience was reverential. Cohen was commanding and full of energy, running on and off stage between sets and the 3 or 4 encores. Hallelujah brought tears to my eyes (I heard a woman behind me crying and others I’m sure others did too). He had this affect of holding his left hand up by the microphone and gesturing. He would also often go down on one knee and focus, coming back up to standing on the swells. He also would often sing directly to a musician (most often the flamenco player) when he wanted their soft soloing over the band to be in a dialogue with or be especially tailored to his singing. It worked.
The main back up singer, Sharon Robinson, a collaborator on some of his songs, did their “Boogie Street” which was very good. The next to last song was essentially a duet by the other two – the Webb Sisters – and was one of the most pure, beautiful things I’ve ever heard. He does it with them on the live album but this really showed just how great they were. All three were incredible.
One moment made clear just how much of the power of the show came from the music itself – as opposed to the “stage energy” or “putting on a good show” or enthusiasm not directed at the music iteself. During one of the encores, Cohen had each musician solo for a few bars and they were all totally focused on being virtuosic but the drummer totally mugged to great effect – winking at the camera (there were giant monitors on either side of the stage), throwing his drum stick in the air timed to come down for a big crescendo, among other things. That this moment was uniquene really illustrated how focused the whole show was and how all of the energy was either in the musical product or a byproduct of creating it. The intense effort resulted in an emotionally powerful and musically perfect product.
Other standouts aside from Hallelujah and Chelsea Hotel were, well almost everything, but especially Everybody Knows, Tower of Song, Suzanne, So Long Marianne, First We Take Manhattan, I’m Your Man, and Bird on a Wire. But this is almost quibbling. The highs were Everest but the show as a whole was the Himalayan range.
One other thing struck me. When I saw Bruce Robison a while back and he sang all of these songs he had written that other performers had hits with I thought of how odd it was that these were his but these other performers seemed to own them. Now just about everyone knows that the Leonard Cohen songs that are covered from here to eternity are his and know his recordings of them, but I wondered if he would still own them in live performance after so many versions. There was no question. He owned every moment of every song.