Leonard Cohen in Belgrade

Nenad Georgievski By

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Leonard Cohen
Belgrade Arena
Belgrade, Serbia
September 2, 2009

There is a saying that "all wine improves with age," but despite this well known adage it is only in the nature of a few select wines to significantly improve with time. This wisdom also applies in the case of a select few artists as they and their work age gracefully and tastefully as time goes by. Leonard Cohen is someone whose appeal, charm, grace and, most importantly, songs, seem to get better, more profound and more widely accepted with the passing of time, unlike those of many of his contemporaries. One of the leading poets of these times, Cohen truly is a part of the sublime pantheon of poets alongside other bards such as Dylan, Young, Paul Simon, Lou Reed, Joni Mitchell, John Lennon.

Recently, as a proof of this, when he was inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Lou Reed, during the induction speech said: "We are all lucky to be alive at the same time as Leonard Cohen." The cult of Leonard Cohen stands at its highest point for years, bolstered by his poetry, reputation and charisma. He is someone who for years has enjoyed a diet of "women, wine, songs and religion," exorcising his demons by writing some of the most emotionally affecting songs in today's music. This renown is even more impressive, because for many years he lived as a recluse hidden in a Zen Monastery in L. A. Recently, his former manager swindled him out of his savings and royalties by bleeding his bank account, thus forcing him, by his own words, "to work for a living at an old age."
This "farewell" tour, after 15 years of abstinence from touring, saw Cohen traveling the world, delighting his old fans and new generations of admirers. Looking gracefully elegant and trim with a black suit and a fedora, field commander Cohen literally won the hearts of the sold-out Belgrade Arena just by appearing on stage. His arrival proved to be the crescendo of the excitement, with the crowd buzzing in anticipation, finally bursting out in a genuinely enthusiastic reception. There were standing ovations just for seeing him there, and it's unlikely there will be another stage entrance reception to rival this one.

Yet, he raised the stakes even higher with the first song "Dance me till the end of love" as well as what followed. He did the unexpected, dropping on his knee in front of the audience, who felt spellbound by his humility and, at the same time, nobility. How very unlikely that someone else from the pop pantheon would do such a thing. What strikes one most when he starts singing is the depth of his voice, which has become deeper and more vicious, the words now burning like fire: "Dance me to your beauty with a burning violin, Dance me through the panic 'til I'm gathered safely in, Lift me like an olive branch and be my homeward dove, / Dance me to the end of love."

This was soon followed by the brutal and ironic "The Future," then the poignant and lovely "Ain't No Cure For Love." The audience showed sincere reverence for Cohen, laughing wholeheartedly at his many jokes, while maintaining a respectful silence through the quieter numbers while listening to each word: "Famous Blue Raincoat," "Suzanne," "A Thousand Kisses Deep," "Gypsy Wife," "Chelsea Hotel," "Sisters of Mercy," "Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye." On the other hand, Cohen quickly felt at home with this audience, sharing a mutual feeling of old friends meeting again after years of separation, even though it was the first time he has played here. There was a special spiritual generosity on part of the audience which in a way melted the distance between him and them. It was some kind of a personal embrace and appreciation. His gentle humor was infectious throughout and in full evidence. He admitted that "It's been a long time since he last played live, 15 years, a time when he was "just a kid" with a dream.

That sense was evident even in his generous relationship with the band, as he never hesitated to acknowledge their contributions where it was due. Led by bassist and musical director Roscoe Beck, this nine-piece band consisting of brilliant musicians who were more than able to bring out the best of these songs that sound deceptively simple and frugal. Their playing was flawless. Whenever some of them soloed, Cohen would take off his hat and stand enraptured. He generously shared the spotlight with them, especially with his backing vocals (and muses), the Webb sisters, who had a solo spotlight with "If it be Your Will" and Sharon Robinson, Cohen's long time collaborator and co-writer of some of his most famous songs: "In my Secret Life," "Everybody Knows," and one for which she took the lead vocal, "Boogie Street."

For some of us one of the highlights definitely was Javier Mas and his army of instruments. This master musician from Barcelona played on a variety of instruments: bandurria, laud, archilaud, and 12-string guitar. No wonder Cohen calls him "shepherd of the strings." His gypsy soul gave a different flavor to the magnificence of these precious gems. The Arabian-sounding 12-string-guitar intro to "Who by Fire" was breathtaking, as he demonstrated extraordinary virtuosity with sounds intricately woven into a beautiful tapestry.

"I'm Your man" was one of the best-received songs of the night, its lyrics provoking one of many standing ovations: "If you want a lover, Ill do anything you ask me to, And if you want another kind of love, Ill wear a mask for you, If you want a partner, Take my hand, Or if you want to strike me down in anger, Here I stand, I'm your man." It is no secret that he has always relied on or was inspired by the benevolence of women.

In a live setting most of his songs take on a gospel-like feeling, creating something sacred, something akin to a ceremony. "Tower of Song" is one song like that, as is "Hallelujah." But, what really matters is the fire with which he sings these songs: "Well, there was a time when you let me know, what's really going on below, but now you never show that to me do you, but remember when I moved in you, and the holy dove was moving too/ and every breath we drew was Hallelujah."

Again, Cohen's voice is an instrument of singular beauty, its timbre having the resonance that can rend the very fabric of the universe. When it dips and soars, it's magnificent. "Tower of Song" has that voice weaving round a simple keyboard accompaniment, singing: "Well, my friends are gone and my hair is grey, I ache in the places where I used to play, And I'm crazy for love but I'm not coming on, I'm just paying my rent every day, Oh in the tower of song." Definitely he caught his audience by surprise with the level of passion, verve and grace that he exuded.

The show went on and on with the same great spirit—just an endless procession of excellent songs: "First We Take Manhattan," "Closing Time," "So Long Marianne," "Wither You Goest." Can anyone think of another musician of that age or other bands and musicians beyond that age group capable of doing a concert three and a half hours long (not including the pause in the middle)? Armed with his songs he constantly moved all across the stage, occasionally dropping on his knee, or both, in front of the audience. At times, especially during the encores, he would hop after each song with a grin on his face.

In recent years, the world to a degree caught up with Cohen. Generations of performers, from U2 to Nick Cave to Sting, still borrow heavily from his florid poetry. Cohen wrote many songs that were covered by a myriad of musicians in recent times. There are excellent tribute albums by many of today's popular singers and musicians. But when hearing Cohen singing his compositions, one gets the message that these are his songs and that the others are just borrowing them.

To be doing what he is doing at this point is about ensuring continuity between the past and the present, and forging a path into the future. Why should people have to stop doing what they love at a certain point because of age or a good financial situation? Over the years, people like Neil Young, Cohen or Dylan and others have been constantly reinventing the answer. Their work and their lives are love letters to consistency. After the fourth encore, Cohen ended the concert by thanking the audience for keeping his songs alive and stating that it was an honor to be performing for them.

The entire evening along with the concert itself were blessed. That night at the Arena was a beautiful, awkward, strangely intimate, heart-fulfilling, sweet, deep, raw, emotional and moving experience. It was more than just a concert: to witness this man was one of the most enchanting, deeply moving and gratifying experience and musical performance I have ever had, both for me and the audience present. A way to say goodbye, feeling enriched and fulfilled.

Photo Credit
Aleksandar Zec

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