Hats off to Cohen

21:58, Nov 03 2010
Leonard Cohen
WORDSMITH: Leonard Cohen.

Arriving at the CBS Canterbury Arena I found Leonard Cohen's The Guests in my head: ''One by one the guests arrive, the guests are coming through. The open-hearted many, the broken-hearted few. And those who dance begin to dance, and those who weep begin. Welcome, welcome, cries a voice, let all my guests come in...''

I missed opener Bic Runga completely through underestimating traffic congestion, despite allowing myself 45 minutes to get from the city centre to the venue. I have never seen this venue so full of cars.

Magical is a word which was used a lot by those who saw Leonard Cohen last time he played in Christchurch, as they delivered the kind of fervent praise usually reserved for a religious experience.

Now I can understand why.

For those who missed out in 2008, another chance to see and hear the 76-year-old Canadian singer/songwriting legend miracuously presented itself last night.

Religion is something which is not far from the heart of Leonard Cohen. A Buddhist monk as well as observant Jew, there is an indefinable spirituality that informs many of his songs. Cohen was ordained as a Rinzai Zen Buddhist monk and took the Dharma name Jikan, meaning silence. And Cohen says as much in the silences and spaces in his performance as he does through his articulate wordplay and extraordinary music.

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The smart hat and suit complicate the Zen-like aura a little but throughout Cohen conducts himself in the calm, meditative manner usually associated with a prophet.

Some of his best-known songs are written in the tone of a seer of course - Democracy, First We Take Manhattan, The Future - the latter carrying the same spooky weight last night as it did when first unveiled last century. Last night's version notably featured a line change from ''give me crack and anal sex'' to ''give me crack and killer sex''.

My own route to the songs of Leonard Cohen is indirect, having initially heard Cohen songs covered by others. Therefore I first got to know encore So Long Marianne as performed by the Straitjacket Fits, Lover, Lover, Lover done by Echo and the Bunnymen and the omnipresent Hallelujah performed by all sorts, ranging from Dave Dobbyn to KD Lang and Nick Drake.

Playing for over three hours over two parts and three encores last night, the arena was bathed in a hushed, reverent atmosphere as Cohen delicately delivered Dance Me to the End of Love, The Darkness, Waiting for the Miracle, Bird on the Wire, Tower of Song, Sisters of Mercy, the Gypsy's Wife, Hallelujah, I'm Your Man and more. I've watched his live DVDs and heard his albums but hearing Cohen live was another step up - it was like being drizzled in lyrical honey.

For me, Chelsea Hotel #2 and 1000 Kisses Deep were dynamite. Unfortunately two braying bovine boofheads behind me decided to loudly chat about meaningless domestic frippery. I turned around and gave them "the look" and thankfully they shut their boorish cakeholes.

Cohen's gift as a songwriter, especially as a wordsmith, has never been in doubt, even for the non-obsessive, and for all who attended the sold-out CBS Canterbury Arena last night, the kind of respect usually reserved for a Dylan or a Brian Wilson was afforded. He received a standing ovation walking on stage and three standing ovations before Closing Time.

Cohen is a master at weaving emotion subtly and the atmosphere was never overly maudlin; rather the sadness was inspiring and the audience laughed often at his well-timed lines and clever poetic teasers.

Aged 76, his deep baritone wavered only a little over his astonishing three hour set and any blemishes were hidden by the wonderful array of backing vocalists spread among his nine-piece band, which included percussionist Rafael Gayol, Roscoe Beck (musical director, bass and backing vocals), Neil Larsen (keys), the inimitable Bob Metzger (guitars, pedal steel and backing vocals), sublime saxophonist Dino Soldo, Javier Mas (bandurria, laud, archilaud and 12-string guitar), the gorgeous and hypnotic vocals of Sharon Robinson and the Webb sisters - sibling acrobats with sublime voices.

Cohen said he was humbled by the hospitality he had received in our ''mysterious and exotic location you all seem to regard as regular''.

There is a crack, a crack in everything ... that's how the light gets in.

The Godfather of cool, Cohen is one of a kind and this was one of the best shows I've seen in a long time.

Mr Cohen, sir, Christchurch collectively takes its hat off to you.

The Press