First Night: Leonard Cohen, Opera House, Manchester
A happy return for the master of misery
Wednesday 18 June 2008
Does Leonard Cohen want to be here? It looks like it, actually. It's been well-documented that he believes fraud has eroded his pension fund, to the point that getting out on the road is his most viable way of making a fast living.
There was no sense of a grudge here, though, or of an artist hauling himself across the stage to pay the bills. Whether Manchester International Festival has benefited from his circumstances in luring the 73-year-old Canadian across the Atlantic to play this four-night midsummer residency is irrelevant. The presence of an icon like this is simply a major cultural event in any city's calendar.
Regardless of how he came to be before us, Cohen looks assured about the situation. "It's been 15 years since I stood up on a stage," he says, reminding his audience of how privileged they are. "Fourteen, 15 years ago when I was 60 – a young kid with a crazy dream – then I took a lot of Prozac." He reels off a list of other prescription mood enhancers that he has sampled. "I studied all the religions of the world too, but cheerfulness kept breaking through." Laughter and cheers follow, and he soaks them up. Yes, Cohen – the godfather of miserablism – looks happy to be with us.
He also looks not nearly all of his years. In a tailored dark suit, a grey shirt and a steel-coloured fedora with a black ribbon, he carries himself with the smooth style and dignity of a jazz player in Fifties Manhattan. When he sings, his knees knock together, he cringes in the spotlight, his mic is pinched in white-knuckled fists. Cohen might have been a crooner, had he not been blessed with the baritone that's his and his alone.
Even each frequent between-song comment and introduction for a member of his six-piece band, or three-strong chorus, is enunciated with a voice rich in drama and gravitas. And to hear him sing is still an experience to truly make young women and romantics shiver and sweat.
That voice is as rich and sexual as it was 40 years ago, and its tonal imperfections are only an enhancement. "I was born with a gift of a golden voice," runs the line in Tower of Song, and knowing cheers greet it.
The show is three hours long, including interval, but Cohen breezes through just about every song of note his career has contained, with the begrudging exception of Chelsea Hotel No 2. Who By Fire features an extended flamenco guitar introduction, one of many instrumental flourishes throughout, like the guitar lines in Bird On A Wire which cause Cohen to respectfully clutch his hat to his chest like the last mourner at a graveside. Spines tingle through Suzanne and Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye, and Hallelujah commands a standing ovation.
The encores begin with So Long, Marianne and includes If It Be Your Will, begun as one of a handful of tender spoken-word passages, and continued by Cohen's backing singers, the Webb Sisters and alongside his long-time collaborator Sharon Robinson. He pauses to thank them, his band and us, "my friends", over all three of his returns to the stage. He is received every time with wild and deserved adoration.
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