Born with the Gift of a Golden Voice

Leonard Cohen at the O2 World, Berlin

By Sascha Krieger

This is, Leonard Cohen says near the beginning of the show, the end of his German tour. He does not know when – and if – we will meet again, a fair statement considering the man is 78 years old. But tonight, he promises, he will give everything he has. It is a promise he will have kept three and a half hours later. Last year, he enchanted his audience at Berlin’s magnificent amphitheater atmosphere of the Waldbühne, this time the much more functional O2 World plays host. There may be no other artist alive who is capable of transforming a rather faceless  sports arena such as this into an intimate night club where he can spend a night among friends, albeit a few thousands of them. An unlikely transformation from the brooding dark poet of the 1960s, the melancholic prophet of pain and despair, the man who battled depression and more than once sang about suicide. Today, Cohen seems at ease with himself and the world, a humble man who takes off his hat to pay respect to his brilliant band, who sings on his knees, who expresses his gratitude many times and who invests his songs with a depth of warmth and intensity that is unrivalled.

He opens the show as usual with Dance Me to the End of Love, a slightly subdued beginning, it seems that Cohen needs a little while to get the cold arena up to the usual temperature. It does not take long. The bitter and sharply political The Future is invested with all its current relevance, while Bird on a Wire takes one back to those days of hope and doubt and sadness, a tender, intensely sung meditation. Everybody Knows has driving fresh beat and brilliant supporting vocals which prompt Cohen to attempt – quite successfully – to sing harmony, Who by Fire lives from the mystery and otherworldliness of Javier Mas‘ long intro. Three newer songs follow, among them the prayer-like Amen and the light melancholy of Come Healing. The first set ends with a new addition to the tour, the comeback of Lover Lover Lover – powerful, relentless, emotional and of an inescapable rhythmic pull.

The quiet lyricism of Cohen’s early years fills the stage when he comes back: following the lightly ironic Tower of Song, Suzanne has not a trace of staleness, Chelsea Hotel #2 is performed solo by Cohen with just a touch of support from Neil Larsen’s organSisters of Mercy and The Partisan have not lost any of their haunting poetic density. And this voice: Deep, warm, full of emotion and subtlety, Cohen now lives up to the line in Tower of Song: he is indeed blessed with „the gift of a golden voice“. He moves through the years: the hymn-like Hallelujah, the quietly pleading I’m Your Man, the forgetfully nostalgic dance of Take This Waltz. When the encores come, So Long Marianne is enthusiastically joined by the audience and so is a stunningly energetic First We Take Manhattan. The audience shouts out „Then we take Berlin“ so powerfully, that Cohen has to smile several times.

His fabulous background singers get their share of the limelight: his long-time collaborator and co-writer Sharon Robinson sings Alexandra Leaving with her clear warm voice while the Webb Sisters turn If It Be Your Will into an angelic tune. There is the quiet sadness of Famous Blue Raincoat, the boisterous joy of Closing Time, the self-ironic playfulness I Tried to Leave You has turned into, before the show ends with a wink and a nod: The Drifters‘ Save the Last Dance for Me highlights his abilities as a singer and an entertainer and is a good-humored and heartfelt good-bye.

Again, Leonard Cohen has transformed a concert into something many visitors will have considered magic. His sad a, bitter, melancholic tunes have been softened: by age, his deep and warm voice and the superb band that moves from barroom jazz to oriental and Spanish favors to blues and folk and pop in a fascinating musical melange that turns the harshness of many of Cohen’s earlier songs into something lighter, affirmation of life even in the light of grief and despair. He does not denies the darkness but is convinced that, as he sings in Anthem (a song he’s omitted this time) „there is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.“ The poet of human darkness has turned into and illuminator, a humble but amazingly vital old man bringing us the light. It can only be hoped he will continue to do so for quite some time. It is a light we are all in need of.

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