05/13/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Leonard Cohen Works For A Living

Who would have guessed that Leonard Cohen was a contender for James Brown's title as The Hardest Working Man in Show Business? Cohen's Friday night appearance at L.A.'s Nokia Theater was a riveting three-hour music marathon, complete with wit, charm, and snippets of poetry that mesmerized the crowd.

This was no victory lap. At 74, Leonard Cohen works for his living. Cohen, emerging from financial trouble, might have tried a solo acoustic tour. Instead he spared no expense to bring a large group of stellar musicians and his own lighting and sound crew with him. That makes sense. Though he made his name in the sixties folk boom, Cohen's sensibility has always been more Jacques Brel than Jack Elliott. Professionalism, elegance, and discipline marked Friday's performance.

The set list was essentially unchanged from previous tour appearances. "The Future" came early, for example, drawing in the darkness that led Trent Reznor to remix it for "Natural Born Killers." So did "Bird On the Wire" and "Who By Fire." "Democracy" and "First We Take Manhattan" came later, as the crowd relaxed into its satisfaction.

Cohen rehearsed his band for an unusually long three months before taking them on the road. It showed. They seamlessly conveyed his internationalist blend of gypsy music, Strauss, and French cabaret. Even the stage patter's been repeated from town to town, but Cohen admirers want to hear what he has to say whether it's rehearsed or not.

And it still works, months into the tour: "I did my last concerts 14 years ago," Cohen will say. "I was 60 years old. Just a crazy kid with a dream ..." Or he'll mutter gravely: "They say hard times might be coming. (pause) Could be worse than Y2K ..." And he alludes to both his Zen Buddhist monkhood and his history of depression, saying that he tried the great philosophies and religions but "cheerfulness kept breaking through."

What about that voice? He may not have chops by any usual standard, but his deep and unadorned delivery was always impossible to ignore. If a corpse could sing it would sound like that. As the back-country folk might say, "it were a plain voice." But that droning plainness could often hypnotize, carrying a song in ways other voices could not.

And it's not plain anymore. His voice has found added depth and resonance, expanding downward to acquire what it has always lacked in breadth. Perhaps Cohen's years as a Zen monk included some okyo chanting, which calls on the singer to ground his voice in the earth beneath his or her feet. Whatever the source, his basso approached the subtonal on some notes, drawing enthusiastic shouts from the audience (especially the females).

There were no surprises, no covers of R&B obscurities or Webb Pierce hits. In fact there were no covers at all, unless you include Cohen's translation of the French Resistance song "La complainte du partisan." Covers aren't part of what he does.

Hats are, though. Cohen and his band wore hats and suits, and the hat has become part of the act. When a man buys his first good hat he's instructed on how to dent and crease it to make it his. Cohen's fedora was well-battered, as if it had been handed down from Fred Astaire via Rocky Marciano. And he brandished it like a scepter, doffing it to honor a soloing musician while bending on one knee.

"I'll wear an old man's mask for you," he injected in "I'm Your Man." And he did. The aging roué, dapper and occasionally almost frail in his gray suit and hat, is growing into his years like a character from a silent movie. At times he was almost Chaplinesque, at others like a refugee from a John Le Carré novel or a fifties-era Organization Man taking the commuter train from Greenwich. And sometimes the elegant Mr. Cohen looked like the CEO he is, the graying but increasingly-powerful head of an international music combine.

It's all calculated, of course, but most of us don't object to a seduction if the seducer's working hard enough.

The show was extremely generous by any standards, which may be another reflection of that Buddhist practice. Zen monasteries are austere places where monks are expected to work hard, be meticulous in their attention to detail, and never complain. And like any humble Zen priest, Cohen was careful to thank both the audience and his backstage workers with hat in hand.

Then there was the band: Sharon Robinson, cowriter of some of his best recent songs, chaired the vocal section with emotional texture and inner beauty, especially when she took the lead on "Boogie Street." The Webb Sisters provided choral richness and gave an exquisite rendition of one of Cohen's best tunes, "If It Be Your Will." (Usually it's a disappointment when backup singers do the star's material. Not in this case.)

The instrumentalists, all exceptional, were led by bassist Roscoe Beck. Neil Larsen was on keys, with Bob Metzger on guitar and pedal steel, Dino Soldo on winds, and Rafael Goyol on drums and percussion. Spanish instrumentalist Javier Mas gave the band an added dimension on guitar, bandurria, laud, and archilaud (variants of the oud).

The audience reception bordered on ecstatic, although it was hard to track their responses sometimes. A cheer for the line "I'm the little Jew who wrote the Bible" might be a tribute to Cohen. But there was also applause for "I don't trust my inner feelings/inner feelings come and go." That's L.A. for you. Go figure.

The young poet who wrote "Maria/please find me/I am almost thirty" is now almost seventy-five, still on the job and still delivering. Friday's performance was a triumphal return, and the tour shouldn't be missed. He might not be back for another 14 years.

(Additional tour dates for Leonard Cohen are here.)


RJ Eskow blogs when he can at:

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