Music Review: Leonard Cohen at Merriweather Post Pavilion

Leonard Cohen, shown at the Coachella festial last month, played Merriweather Post Pavilion on Monday with a light-jazz backing band in a show that got stronger as it progressed.
Leonard Cohen, shown at the Coachella festial last month, played Merriweather Post Pavilion on Monday with a light-jazz backing band in a show that got stronger as it progressed. "We're so privileged to gather like this," Cohen said onstage. (By Chris Pizzello -- Associated Press)
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By Chris Klimek
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Ladies and Gentlemen, opening for the serene and poetic Mr. Leonard Cohen this evening: the brilliant and genteel Mr. Leonard Cohen.

At Merriweather Post Pavilion on Monday night, under skies that might be called "Cohenesque" -- cold, rainy, despairing, but not without a solitary beauty -- the spry 74-year-old songwriter's songwriter glided onstage at 7:35 and sang for 65 minutes. Yes, sang. Save your jokes. He's heard them all, and written some of the better ones himself. After a half-hour intermission, he returned to perform for another hour 40, a headliner's set in its own right. All told, he offered more than two dozen impeccable numbers from a tower of song that reaches back four decades.

But the arrangements? Peccable, alas. With nine musicians joining him onstage, the temptation to drown Cohen's meticulous language in flaccid light-jazz instrumentation was constant. Too often, it was irresistible: The "Dance Me to the End of Love" that opened the show didn't need one sax solo, much less two.

Javier Mas's banduria was a consistent, welcome exception amid the bloat. His lithe Mediterranean flourishes never felt like they were competing with Cohen's stiff but authoritative baritone, which is perhaps why the great man addressed so many of his down-on-one-knee serenades to Mas.

While the star was happy to share the approbation, graciously introducing the band not once but twice, the night's best performances were its least ornamented: a spare, haunted "Suzanne," with cartwheel-turning sister singers Charley and Hattie Webb accompanying Cohen's denuded rasp; the poem "A Thousand Kisses Deep," recited with barely any instrumentation at all; and "Famous Blue Raincoat," still aching with betrayal. If the entire show had been as strong as the closing stretch that began with "First We Take Manhattan" and ended with "Whither Thou Goest," the gig would have been one for the books. Instead, it played more like a microcosm of Cohen's career: long, with moments of staggering beauty interspersed among dormant stretches.

Before a stirring "Anthem" to close the first set, Cohen observed, "We're so privileged to gather like this, with so much of the world plunged in chaos and suffering." Which is, roughly translated, Canadian poet-turned-monk-speak for "Throw your hands up and make some noy-oiiiise, Maryland!"

A shed like Merriweather is an outlier on a tour itinerary that has Cohen playing mostly theaters in the United States, doubtless a better fit for his moody, mid-tempo introspection. But the ensemble, resplendent in sharp suits and arrayed in front of a curtain bathed in gold or violet or crimson as the mood required, managed to conjure something of a nightclub atmosphere despite the incongruous surroundings.

Cohen's current tour -- his first U.S. roadshow since 1993 -- was born of money problems. Specifically, a former associate stole most of Cohen's while he was living in a Los Angeles monastery. Even so, Cohen proved determined to give the reverent crowd value for its hard-earned money, and he appeared genuinely humbled by the standing ovations that erupted after "Waiting for the Miracle," "Hallelujah" and too many other performances to name.

Alas, commercial considerations still intruded: There were few surprises as the show's set list, arrangements and even Cohen's stage banter were largely reprised from his just-released "Live in London" double CD, recorded last summer. Then again, that Cohen can still perform as tirelessly and powerfully as this at 74 is probably surprise enough.

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