Last night I headed along to the TSB Bank Arena in Wellington to see the old crooner perform. I will be up front, I’m not a die hard fan but the songs of his I love, I really love so I went with high expectations. While the majority of the audience gave three enthusiastic standing ovations, I personally found it hard to get my bum off my chair. Cohen had a wonderful enthusiasm but the rest of the act fell short. All of the favourites were included, from Dance Me to the End of Love, Hallelujah and Bird on the Wire. They were fun (well, as fun as such depressing songs can be) and everyone sang along, but to be honest, the back up singers outshone Cohen, even the audience sometimes sounded more in tune.
To put it frankly, I think Cohen is past his used by date. The 79-year-old dances around the stage and takes to his knees with an abundance of energy, but we haven’t come to watch him dance, we’ve come to watch him sing and his voice just isn’t what it used to be. As well-loved as his songs are, they just don’t have the same effect as they should when his famously low, husky voice is used to speak the lyrics more than it is to sing. They’re beautiful lyrics, Cohen certainly has a way with words and knows how to tug at the heart strings and prompt a few giggles, but I found myself thinking the whole way through the gig that he would be better off putting on a poetry recital. A few times I thought he’d read my mind on that note as he silenced the crowd reciting his musings in a slow, mild manner, before the band started up into song. I was more captivated in those moments than I was during most of his songs.
By the end of the first act I was bored stiff. For the first time in my life, I contemplated leaving the concert early. But I’ll give the old groover a bit of credit, the second half definitely picked up. He came back firing with a more energetic Tower of Song and the lovely Suzanne. But it wasn’t long before the pace of the performance slowed back down and I found my mind wandering again, in fact I found myself at one point struggling to keep my eyes open.
I persevered, with the hope my favourite, So Long, Marianne would erase my current disappointment. That song was great, so was Hallelujah which the crowd eagerly sang along to, including an over excited couple behind me who clapped, sang and squealed so loudly I thought they were at least 20 years younger.
But it wasn’t either of these big hits that stole the show. It was the wonderful nine-piece band on stage beside Cohen. One reason it’s good he is still touring at 79 is so these talents are showcased to the world. Each and every one of them deserves as much credit as the others. Musical director and bassist Rosco Beck kept the beat sounding funky and fresh, Neil Larsen played the Hammon B3 organ fiercely, regularly stealing the show, but he had stiff competition from violinist Alexandru Bublitchi who executed a perfect solo in almost every song. Javier Mas had the audience sitting still in awe during his many solos on a 12 string guitar. Things really got exciting when the backup singers dropped the ‘mmms’ and ‘dooos’ and took control. Cohen’s regular collaborator Sharon Robinson sang Alexandra Leaving flawlessly on her own while the Webb Sisters Charley and Hattie played an emotional encore version of If It Be Your Will with just a guitar and the enchanting use of a harp. Their voices gave me chills down my spine.
By the end of the second half I was somewhat more satisfied, but three very rehearsed encores got the better of me and I left before the end of the last song. I’m sorry Leonard Cohen but I think you’ve done your dash. I commend you for presenting your band to the world but think it’s time you left the performing to them.