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Review: Leonard Cohen at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live

Cohen29_khzu1pnc "No matter how old you get, if you can keep the desire to be creative, you're keeping the man-child alive," the actor and filmmaker John Cassavetes once said. Cassavetes, who died at age 59, never really got to test out his assertion. Leave it to his spiritual brother, Leonard Cohen, to prove the point. During his carefully staged but spirited three-and-a-half-hour performance Friday at Nokia Theatre at L.A. Live, the 74-year-old poet and chanteur represented for the wintery side of manhood, but his beatific smile revealed the little boy within.

Within the pop world, Cohen has always been an elder statesman; he released his first album in 1967, at age 33, already a published poet and novelist. The fact that he's always projected a certain maturity has helped him as he's become actually old; the transformation doesn't seem as drastic.

Cohen's foggy voice, formed over decades of time spent at what he once called "the little Parthenon of an unopened pack of cigarettes," still has power -- kicking the habit was obviously wise. It's the instrument he's had since the mid-1980s, an epic groan whose deepest rumble he deployed in "In My Secret Life," singing about "the wisdom of old," and whose pinched high range he heroically attempted in "So Long, Marianne."

Mostly he used his gift for conversational chant to clearly put forth the lyrics his elated fans knew so well. He also did a little agile dancing and often knelt in the pose of a gospel preacher, though he left the cartwheels (only one, actually) to his young back-up singers, the sisters Charley and Hattie Webb.

His performance, the first he's given locally in more than a decade but a late stop in a long tour meant to remedy the financial blows Cohen suffered from a shifty manager, was far from extemporaneous. A nearly identical show, down to Cohen's banter about antidepressants and spiritual health, can be heard on his new CD, "Leonard Cohen Live in London." Even deep into the evening, when obscurities like "The Gypsy's Wife" and the nearly jam-band worthy blues "I Tried to Leave You" popped up, the versions were not exactly loose. But Cohen found the fleshy particulars within his studied approach.

In this way, Cohen proved very much like Cassavetes, whose curtain-ripping dramas of contemporary heartbreak were often assumed to be improvised but were actually tightly scripted. Similarly, Cohen aimed for what one film scholar once called the "look and feel" of improvisation rather than the real thing. He delivered his well-prepared lines like a poet giving a reading meant to move -- which, of course, is his other role. He even offered the late-period song "A Thousand Kisses Deep" in oracular form, with no musical accompaniment.

The audience, many of whom may have never seen him before, responded warmly to every song, showing special fervor for the most familiar, such as "Hallelujah," and the most anthemic, such as "Democracy" and, of course, "Anthem." That song contains the line that best sums up Cohen's art of earthbound transcendence. He borrowed it from a teaching from writer Jack Kornfield, who, like Cohen, has trained as a Buddhist monk: "There is a crack, a crack in everything. That's where the light comes in."

His nine-piece band, working in a smooth, jazz-influenced cabaret vein, offered the washes of sunshine that offset Cohen's gravelly intonations. Each player showed considerable skill -- especially the string virtuoso Javier Mas on bandurria and laud, and Rafael Gayol, a drummer with a perfectly light touch. Keyboardist Neil Larson was the showiest member, throwing off churchy fills on his Hammond organ; Dino Soldo, on various horns, sometimes veered close to Kenny G and Chris Botti's turf.

Cohen gave his companions room to stand out, introducing every member several times and giving them solos, including two from Sharon Robinson, his longtime songwriting partner and background vocalist. The Webb sisters also performed a version of the psalm-like "If It Be Your Will" that truly conjured seraphim.

At the night's end, the players stood together and offered a small prayer, perhaps in honor of Passover and Good Friday (though it too appears on that live recording from last June, and Cohen has closed tours with it before). "Whither Thou Goest" reiterates the words of the faithful Ruth, the Old Testament standard-bearer for calm consistency. With that goodbye, Cohen reminded us that equanimity can be like a boat on life's sea of troubled water -- and that, demonstrated by himself, it also makes for art that truly endures.

-- Ann Powers

Photo: Leonard Cohen was backed by a nine-piece band and backing vocalists at the Nokia.  Spencer Weiner / Los Angeles Times

Comments () | Archives (9)

I was at Nokia Center tonight for a show that appears to have been identical to Friday's. No matter, it was FANTASTIC! The Webb sisters are angelic and the band is so good that even though the songs are long, they are engrossing. Plus, Nokia Center is a great place to see a concert.

I loved this!

I attended Friday night's extraordinary show and even for this non-religious devotee, it was a remarkably appropriate celebration for Good Friday and Passover. The audience was in deep communion with the artist, who offered one strongly felt and brilliantly rendered masterpiece after another. It was a spiritual experience for me and, I felt, the entire audience. Cohen may be the preeminent poet of despair and loss, but he is also a veritable saint of failed romance and nothing less than a prophet of hard truth. I felt sanctified in his presence. And as he said, "cheerfulness kept breaking through." Yes it did.

Ms. Powers seems a bit disappointed that the show was nearly identical to the Live in London performance. Yes, it was certainly scripted and hardly improvisational. But that has always been one of Cohen's strengths. As a poet, songwriter and performer, he is rigorously concise. For example, it took him more than a decade to complete "Take This Waltz", the Lorca inspired surreal epic of romance and longing. Given the heroic discipline that such an effort must have required, any improvisation would have demeaned this finely honed work. I expect that most of Cohen's songs are as carefully constructed. It is an homage and gesture of respect to his audience that he chooses to perform the work with the same care and precision.

I only wish that the L.A. Times had enough respect for this great artist to actually publish Ms. Power's review in the paper rather than tossing it away in a little noticed blog. I had to search to find it. Shame on the Times. But a heartfelt hallelujah to Leonard Cohen!

Mr. Klein is absolutely right. The concert was extraodinary, breathtaking and inspiring. Leonard Cohen prefers to speak from prepared remarks at his concerts.... so what! Don't we wish that he could yell: "great to be in LA, wow!" which is the depth of typical concert banter. The songs were executed beautifully by a skillful band, and Leonard poured his heart into every note. Ann Powers is out of touch! I want Robert HIllburn back, he at least recognized artistry of a sublime level.

After listening to the amazingly timely poetry and lyrics of Leonard Cohen last night at the Nokia in L.A.,and being part of the reverent and respectful crowd that filled the theater, I was disappointed to not find a review of this truly beautiful concert in the L.A. Times this morning.
Nor was there one following the Friday evening performance. In the midst of dire times, these evenings were filled with music that lifted spirits and gave us each much to deeply consider via the words that touched our hearts and minds. Thank you, Leonard.

I agree with Mark Klein -- there was a profoundly spiritual feel to the evening that I've never detected at a show before. The demographic, which cut across all lines of age and sub-culture was also quite noticeable and remarkable. Two days later, it is all still with me and I think will be for a long, long time. I had never see Cohen play before and I am glad I did. Some friends and I flew in from New Mexico for the show and it was worth it.
And yes, shame on the Times for not publishing a review in the actual paper.

Attending a concert on Holy Saturday seemed weird to me, but once Leonard Cohen and his band started to play, you knew that you were in the midst of something almost holy. To hear such beautiful, thought-provoking and at times funny lyrics sung so well and accompanied by such graced musicians is an experience that everyone should experience at least in his or her life. Although Leonard Cohen did not sing "Song of Bernadette," each moment of his well-rehearsed and thought-out concert evoked the spirit of that song. "So many hearts I find / Broke like yours and mine / Torn by what we've done and can't undo / I just want to hold you / Won't you let me hold you / Like Bernadette would do. / We've been around, we fall, we fly / We mostly fall, we mostly run / And every now and then we try
To mend the damage that we've done / Tonight, tonight I cannot rest / I've got this joy inside my breast / To think that I did not forget / That child, that song of Bernadette" (copyright Leonard Cohen) What a wonderful world we could have if everyone realized what Leonard has told us for years, we all screw up, but if we keep on loving, forgiving and showing a bit of tolerance, it will be all right.

Remarkable performance. What was more intriguing was the fact that I was at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970 where Leonard Cohen performed before hundred of thousands of fans along with Jimi Hendrix, the Who, Doors, ..just to name a few of the acts...Unfortunately..act at the Isle of Wight played around the clock...if you were asleep..you missed the act...Leonard Cohen made many artists famous...such as Bob Dylan did by others performing his songs. I attended the Saturday night performance...It was an experience that will be cherished forever. The show was remarkable...something I never anticipated. For some reason I had a vision of Leonard Cohen sitting on a stool and singing his old hits...much to my surprise....the event was beyond my best expectation. The professional musicians and vocalists were the best in their art and skill. The audience gave Leonard Cohen at least 10 standing ovations...The performance was superb. The audience showed great respect for someone that who added a significant piece to the world cultural and music scene. Without Leonard Cohen's work there would be a void we all would miss. It was an honor to attend his performance Saturday at the Nokia Theater in Los Angeles. I am sure I was the only person who attended the Isle of Wight festival when Leonard Cohen was at his peak of stardom.. Thanks Leonard...the world of culture and music would be a lot different without your contribution.

Thanks for the comments, but it should be noted that Ann's Leonard Cohen review ran in the Calendar section's front page on Monday. The paper's weekend deadlines make it impossible to print it any earlier than that.

Thanks margaret -- I'm glad the Times finally ran something in the actual paper. In the old days before the paper was sold to the Tribune folks, when it was published locally, you could count on seeing a show reviewed in the paper the next morning.
I was getting really tired of all the non-stop articles on Esa Pekka Salonen.
nicole p.


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