There’s a pivotal scene in Walk the Line when Sun records founder Sam Phillips dares Johnny Cash to sing one song that people would always remember, one that “would let God know how [he] felt about [his] time here on Earth.” But what if Phillips dared Cash to sing 10 or even 12? There are few singer/songwriters in the history of music that could pull off such a feat — and among those few is Leonard Cohen.
Cohen’s remarkable songs have been covered by everyone from Nina Simone to the Pixies to Johnny Cash himself. And Saturday night at the kickoff of Cohen’s U.S. tour at Ft. Lauderdale, FL’s BankAtlantic Center, he showed a crowd of thousands just how moving those songs can be live.
Cohen’s back on the road with a 15-date nationwide outing, following the 75-year-old’s grand return concert in New York last winter after a 15-year absence.
Over three hours and four encores, Cohen took his deep, blue baritone to a depth rarely heard. On “Everybody Knows” he sang about admissions and sins; On “Anthem” he crooned about the duality of there being a “crack in everything" — a crack that sometimes lets light in. There’s the lullaby-esque ballad “Sister of Mercy”; the rising vocals of “Suzanne”; the sinister whispers about being crazy for love on “Tower of Song”; and the hymnal that is “Hallelujah,” which had Cohen holding his hat over his heart and singing to the audience like an old traveling preacher.
Live, Cohen is the consummate gentleman, effortlessly gracious and impeccably mannered. And from the first syllable of “Dance Me to the End of Love” to the last consonant of “First We Take Manhattan,” everyone was treated with complete respect. He even kneeled before the audience on numerous occasions, as if begging for their acceptance.
Cohen was just as gracious to his nine-piece band, from the fedora-topped multi-instrumentalists to the cartwheeling back-up singers, and he twice took time out to introduce them and emphasize how important he considered their participation. It will be tough to forget the name of Barcelona-based guitarist Javier Mas, whose fluttering riffs on tracks like “Who By Fire” were a highlight.
Perhaps the most remarkable point about Cohen is how he seduces the truth in his music and life, something he chased for the past five years as a student at the Zen Buddhist centre in California. He digs up our deepest emotions, as if he was born to do it all along.
Forget the notion of singing one song that people would remember. Instead, think of the men whose musical catalogues people will remember long after those stage lights go dim. Leonard Cohen is one of those men.