I’d been steeling myself for a disappointment; the setlists I’d seen posted on his site forum didn’t reflect my favourite stuff, I thought it understandable if a man of his age, on a very long tour of long sets, might want to preserve his voice and coast a little, maybe even go through the motions. After all, there couldn’t be more of an adoring, accepting audience anywhere in the world (one woman in the car park afterwards was overheard saying she just needed to hear him say Thank you so much for coming, friends and she could go home satisfied!). But none of that – Cohen was in fine growl, reaching down to impossible depths, and singing every song as though he’d only just written it and was discovering its meaning for himself. It was a performance of passion and integrity, sustained throughout the night except perhaps during the final Closing Time, which was a race between Cohen, the backing singers and the band to get to the end as the rain began to fall on the audience.
Taking to the stage unannounced just after 8, still in broad daylight, he started Dance Me To the End of Love kneeling, a position he adopted frequently during the show. The set was drawn mostly from his post-80s ‘synth’ albums, but I was reminded of how great some of these songs are: the vicious vision of The Future, the overlooked (by me) Anthem which in this case delivered the emotional punch that familiarity has drained from Hallelujah. Who By Fire began, as is traditional in a Cohen concert, with an extended solo on an oud-like fretted instrument, just one of many exquisite solos from a top class band. This player and another on harmonica and some sort of breath-driven synth which Cohen called ‘the instrument of wind’ stood out, but the playing was inspired throughout. Cohen seemed to feel obliged to name the band members very frequently, sometimes before they’d finished soloing. During each solo he’d remove his homburg and hold it over his heart, bowing slightly to the player.
I’m a veteran of Cohen shows, going back to the seventies, and it was only in the encore Sisters of Mercy that the delicious golden melancholy of the pre-I’m You Man shows was evoked, but that’s OK – that was then and this is now, and seeing him at all was an unexpected delight at this stage in his life. As he skipped (yes, skipped) off stage after the final encore it looked like he has juice for many years to come.
The full set list (courtesy of the Cohen Files forum):
Dance me to the end of love
Ain’t no cure for love
Bird on the wire
In my secret life
Who by fire?
Hey, that’s no way to say goodbye
Tower of song
I’m your man
A thousand kisses deep (recitation)
Take this waltz
So long, Marianne
First we take Manhattan
Sisters of mercy
If it be your will (sung by the Webb sisters)