Leonard Cohen at the Chicago Theatre

May 5, 2009


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.