Leonard Cohen, Wembley Arena, London

 

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The Independent Culture

He may be, according to his latest album Old Songs," a lazy bastard living in a suit", but as he approaches his 78th birthday, Leonard Cohen still puts in a serious shift: a generous 30 songs this evening, spread over three hours.

And while several of his musicians play seated, Cohen's on his feet the entire time, save for the moments where he drops to his knees, imploring his audience or urging a player to greater heights of artistry. He even manages to skip gaily off the stage at the intermission and the end, as if confirming that the older one gets, the more one reverts to childhood.

His band - and his stage crew and soundman, too - are all dressed like Cohen, a legion of Leonards in grey suits and fedoras; but the colour is all in his imagery, and in their playing, particularly the rhapsodic violin of Alexandru Bublitchi and the exotic oud textures of Javier Mas. The latter's brief but telling bass oud flourish accompanying the line in "Everybody Knows" about there being "so many people you just had to meet without your clothes" is typical of the expressive fluency involved - it's like a little raise of eyebrows at the joke, no more, but wittily effective.

The show is studded with moments like that, tiny gestures or musical flourishes that decorate the measured poise of the performance. These songs don't need a dazzling light-show or pyrotechnics to impress, and it would be perverse to expect more complex choreography than the backing singers' sedate steps back and forth; just subtle things like Cohen's tilting-back of his hat to expose his face as he sings "I'll wear an old man's mask for you" in "I'm Your Man", or more startlingly, the Webb Sisters suddenly turning a single cartwheel for the "white girls dancing" phrase in "The Future".

Cohen's gentle humour pervades all but the most sombre corners of the show. "I see your generosity hasn't diminished," he quips after his stumbling keyboard solo in "Tower Of Song" receives a round of applause; and of course, the crowd responds with a massive cheer when he gets to the line about having been "born with the gift of a golden voice".

The bond between performer and audience, both regarding their encroaching maturity with a certain wry disdain, is one of the elements which, along with the musical flavour of the arrangements, places Cohen's performance more in the European chanson tradition than that of the American troubadour (there's few traces of the blues, even in his saddest songs).

So it is that one of the most heartwarming moments of the entire show comes in an encore of "So Long, Marianne", when the crowd, till then mostly rapt observers, spontaneously joins in with the lilting chorus of one of his oldest songs: an acknowledgement that we've come this far together, and we're still in this together.

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