Leonard Cohen in Melbourne – bravo!

In terms of performance, I don’t anyone at Melbourne’s Rod Laver Arena last night could say that they didn’t get their money’s worth. Leonard Cohen promised he and his brilliant band would give everything they had, and they certainly delivered: for nigh on three hours.

The hits just kept coming: ‘Suzanne’, ‘Bird on a Wire’, ‘I’m Your Man’, ‘Hallelujah’ …

He’s a fascinating performer, Cohen, the quintessential gentleman on stage, full of grace and modesty. When was the last time you heard an act thank their sound and lighting guys by name?

The night got off to a splendid start thanks to Deborah Conway and Willy Zygier, offering an acoustic set that was a mite too short, their rapport and her pipes proving to be a winning combination (it’s been a long time since Do Re Mi and the Sweet & Sour soundtrack, eh?).

And then it was time for the main event, complete with intermission, and thanks to the venue for letting food and drink be taken into the auditorium, a glass of red the ideal accompaniment on a rainy night.

There was a similarity to the set list in terms of mood and tempo, occasionally breaking out of the meditative lounge setting to trot or waltz — ‘Everybody Knows’ (such a brilliant song, I highly recommend the Concrete Blonde version), ‘First We Take Manhattan’, ‘Take This Waltz’. The musicianship was superb, clarinet and bass doing wonderful melds, Javier Mas on bandurria adding that hint of otherworldliness, Bob Metzer’s electric guitar adding some glue, the Hammond organ… each got their moment in the spotlight, often with Cohen singing their praise, but it was the combination that made the night, all those pieces fitting together, humbly, to make the big picture. And then there were the backing singers: Cohen’s long-time collaborator Sharon Robinson, who got her solo on ‘Boogie Street’, and the Webb sisters, Hattie with her almost-Celtic vocals and Charley with a dusty quasi-Stevie Nicks rasp.

Lighting and sound deserved their kudos, from what we could see and hear from way up side-on to stage. I never did see the drummer, the big screen being sufficiently tilted to cover him without actually showing much of a view of the action, and both bass and guitar being mostly obscured by a pylon. If I had a gripe about the evening, it was the undisclosed sub-standard seats for the price (buyer beware at the Rod Laver Arena!).

But it was the words and the man that the crowd was there for, and they were paramount. With each song offering Cohen’s gorgeous phrasing, delivered with such distinctive aplomb — the man picked up his guitar for a stretch, too, making those almost 80-year-old fingers do their thing, and delivered spoken word on ‘A Thousand Kisses Deep’ — you’d have to be made of stone not to be impressed, if not carried away. Love lost, love found, melancholy nights on the street, a touch of gospel and a slice of Bible story, cynicism and self-deprecation and songs about songs and those rays of hope, all sitting so seamlessly side by side.

There were two encores, the Webb sisters performing ‘If It Be Your Will’ with guitar and harp in the second before Cohen and Co. brought the curtain down with ‘Closing Time’. Outside, the puddles on the pavement and the mist hanging over the city’s neon heights were the perfect setting for the post-show walk to the station.

Songs we heard (I’ve probably missed some, and they aren’t in order): Dance Me to the End of Love (opener), Suzanne, Bird on a Wire, I’m Your Man, Hallelujah, A Thousand Kisses Deep (spoken word), Boogie Street (Robinson), Sisters of Mercy, Take This Waltz, The Gypsy Wife, In My Secret Life, Everybody Knows, There Ain’t No Cure for Love, Waiting for the Miracle, Feels So Good, A Singer Must Die, Born In Chains, Tower of Song, Chelsea Hotel #2, The Partisan, The Future, Anthem, first encore: So Long Marianne, First We Take Manhattan, second encore: Famous Blue Raincoat, If It Be Your Will (Webb Sisters, spoken intro by Cohen), Closing Time (closer).

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