John Roughan

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

Concert review: Leonard Cohen, Vector Arena

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Respect flows like wine as crowd thrills to classics old and new and musicians given their moment to shine.

Singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen is impressively agile for a 79-year-old.
Singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen is impressively agile for a 79-year-old.

'Friends", he called the crowd that packed Vector Arena to see the dark poet of song who had enchanted them at times in their youth.

They know him better now. When he skipped on to the stage for the final concert of his third tour in five years, they rose in ovation before he had sung a note. Leonard Cohen, nearing 80, doffed his now-trademark hat, thanked them genuinely and rewarded them with more than three hours from his life's catalogue.

The splendid band around him is almost as well known to the audience now, thanks to his frequent introductions and the respect he pays them throughout. This time he had a different guitarist, Mitch Watkins, and a violinist, Alexandru Bublitchi, in place of the wind instruments of previous tours.

The sound was not as full but the violin brought some beautiful solos to songs such as Suzanne. Cohen knows the ones he must do: I'm Your Man, Tower of Song, Chelsea Hotel, Hallelujah, of course.

He knows exactly how much of the familiar repertoire to repeat. As on previous visits, he opened with two upbeat numbers from The Future album, followed by Bird on the Wire, the deceptively simple tune that he is said to believe he has never quite nailed.

Then came the new ones, from the album Old Ideas released last year. On the recording the songs sound sleepy and almost carelessly indulgent. On stage, he invests them with vocal intensity and songs such as Amen and Show me the Place are revealed as anthems to rank with his best.

Best of them all is Come Healing, a haunting close harmony with his back-up singers, Sharon Robinson and the Webb Sisters.

Robinson, co-composer of some of his work, stole the show for a moment on Saturday night. He gave her a solo for the sublime Alexandra Leaving which they recorded in duet on the Ten Songs collection. Robinson slowed it down, drew it out and made it exquisite.

Hattie and Charley Webb had to wait for the encores for their solo, the heavenly If it Be Your Will, with the angelic Hattie playing harp.

Cohen gives all of his supporting cast their moment in the light, turns to them and doffs his hat while he listens. Respect is the defining character of his performance, not just for them but for the audience, the music and the words that only he knows how hard he worked to chisel them to what he wanted, often long ago.

It is the mature respect that does not take itself too seriously. He calls himself, in another track from the latest album, "a lazy bastard living in a suit". One of those words is not true. On stage he is anything but lazy, dropping to his knees and standing up on cue, still lithe at 79.

After two-and-a-half hours he skipped from the stage to another standing ovation, but it was another 45 minutes before we let him go. For the last of four encores he departed from his own material to lead the audience in Save the Last Dance for Me. But the most appropriate sign-off came on the second encore. Famous Blue Raincoat normally ends, "sincerely, L Cohen". This time he sang, "sincerely, a friend".

- NZ Herald

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