Chicago Sun-Times
Tuning in with Thomas Conner

Leonard Cohen at the Chicago Theatre

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For a Buddhist monk, Leonard Cohen showed little evidence Tuesday of "being here and now."

The 74-year-old Canadian singer and songwriter's more than three-hour performance during the first of two sold-out shows at the Chicago Theatre followed the same set list as every other show on the tour, including the one documented on his recent album "Live in London." Even the patter was identical.

The last time he toured, a decade and a half ago, the musical legend was "just a crazy kid with a dream," he quipped.

But spontaneity wasn't the point, even if it was essential to another of his key inspirations, the Beat movement. This was an unexpected late-career victory lap, necessitated by having lost most of his savings, but nonetheless a welcome gift to fans who either thought they'd never see him again, or who knew him only through covers by Jeff Buckley, John Cale, Rufus Wainwright and countless others.

Though Cohen is one of the most poetic songwriters to emerge in the '60s, second perhaps only to Bob Dylan in terms of the many gems in his impressive catalog, his studio recordings often are marred by syrupy over-production at odds with the simple brilliance of his writing and the limited but powerful instrument of that gravelly bass voice.

There were moments Tuesday when the polished nine-piece band over-played or sounded just too slick and lite for the material. But the poignant beauty of the songs simply couldn't be denied as one classic followed another, rife with grand Biblical allusions and gritty barroom epiphanies: "Bird on the Wire," "Suzanne," "Chelsea Hotel" and "Hallelujah"--most of all "Hallelujah," a song that even blew Dylan's mind.

Cohen's versions of those and more than 20 others were revelatory in the way that it's always illuminating to hear a great writer read their own work. Wearing his familiar black suit and fedora and dancing with a gentle shuffle or dropping to one knee, he was in fine voice and seemingly humbled by the adoration. And best of all, he seemed ready to go for 74 years more.

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11 Comments

Leonard Cohen did spend several years at a Buddhist center in LA, but he never became a Buddhist monk. In a 2006 NPR interview, Cohen states that he did not become a monk, saying that he had “a perfectly good religion.”

Your review nails tonight's performance. Cohen did lack spontaneity. He did liven up during the second half and do a little dancing around and seemed to sing more from the heart.

Nonetheless, I am so glad I got to see him perform. He is the greatest!

I left when the performers lined up for their final bow. Does anyone know if he sang "Closing Time" at the end of the show?

I saw last night's concert and the opening concert in New York. Yes, the spiel is the same, but I don't expect spontaneity from a man who says he spends months, sometimes years on the lyrics of one song to get them right. Overall, it was a great show: he definitely delivered value for the ticket money. My only complaint was the crowd: granted there were some older people there, but for the most part the audience sat like statues which lessened the experience for me. In the New York show, there were multiple standing ovations and through the encores, people stood and swayed along with each other. It was a concert, not a church activity.

Barb, the final bow was indeed the end. But there were people near us that left before the encore set, which was a bad choice indeed as it lasted nearly as long as the 2 main sets.

Having read up on the previous stops on the tour, I suspected that there would be no spontaneity, but it's not exactly the same as it was on other stops on the tour, there were a couple of songs left out last night. It was still a very impressive show.

I was one of those who thought I'd never get the chance to see him; I'd blown off the 1990 and 1994 tours because at the time I was not impressed with then-current albums. I couldn't see past their "syrupy production;" it was a complete dealbreaker then. But over the years I've been able to see past that, though it looked like that lightbulb came too late. That many people have been able to see Cohen perform live for the first time is the silver lining in the cloud that prompted this tour.

The band he's got now is very talented, and the slickness they've developed by basically playing the same set every night was only a a problem on songs like "Famous Blue Raincoat" and others that don't have heavy production on the albums. As for his voice, it's even more limited than it used to be, but it fits the material so well that it's no problem either.

Indeed, Cohen added several songs last night (Chelsea Hotel, Waiting for the Miracle, Famous Blue Raincoat, The Partisan, etc.) that do not appear on the "Live in London" set. These were very nice surprises.

It was an amazing show. Although the audience was not bouncing up and down, I attributed that more to the fact that they hung on every word. There was tremendous respect shown by the audience for the poet on stage. And Cohen seemed to really respect the audience as well. The band was talented and some of the arrangements stylized, but I think that was Cohen's attempt to entertain as well as to preach. He is often compared to Bob Dylan and I am a great fan of both. They are among our very best songwriters. But,Dylan seems to care very little for his audiences these days, whereas Cohen still tries to make a connection. And connect Cohen did last night, on the most profound level--opening a crack to let the light shine in.

Thanks, Mark, for letting me know I did not miss "Closing Time."

I'm still in awe that I was in the presence of the man I consider the world's greatest songwriter, poet, and singer.

I had never heard of Leonard before. We got fortuitous tickets at the last minute. We had wonderful seats in the balcony. I was greatly impressed by the love and attention the audience showed, especially when they clapped at the beginning of a known song. The accompanying singers and musicians did an outstanding job of supporting his presentation. Perhaps some songs were repetitive, but not at all boring. I was most impressed by his sincerity - and by his ability to kneel as part of his presentation. I am 74, and could never get up straight from a kneeling position.

It was the most civilized concert I had ever been to. I don't think I've seen so much gratitude between a performer, his band and the audience.

The Bird on a Wire performance really got to me - some of the songs became revelations live. And the girls - oh my goodness they were angels.

My wife and I went to Wednesday's concert. I had printed the Tuesday set list I found on the Web. Identical, and sure the patter was the same. It's the same for almost all musicians on the road; you get something good, you keep it. What impressed us about the audience was the wide range of ages. Those of us who remember hearing Judy Collins's version of Suzanne were joined by people who could be our children and grandchildren. Perhaps the years spent in the monastery and not on the road have been beneficial: the voice is still deep, but the harshness has smoothed out. Further, he is able to comment within the songs (you always wanted handsome men but for me you'll make an exception) and across the songs (I tried to leave you opened the final encore). Before the show I moaned about the high ticket price; after the show and seeing how many people were onstage and how many behind stage, I wondered how long it will take to make his money back. But I still moaned about TicketMaster's convenience fee and service charge.

Cohen was amazing this evening. It was a rare gift to see him perform live. I will treasure this forever.

Cohen was amazing this evening. It was a rare gift to see him perform live. I will treasure this forever. The Webb sisters were enchanting and Sharon Robinson was beautiful.

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