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