By Henry Sørensen

According to legend, Bob Dylan once chanced upon Leonard Cohen and praised him for his song “Hallelujah”. “Well, it oughta be good“, Cohen replied, “it took me 15 years to finish“. The always courteous Cohen then returned the praise by congratulating Dylan for his song “Every Grain of Sand”. “Thanks“, Dylan said smugly, “I wrote it in 15 minutes“.

Whether true or not, the story speaks volumes of the differences in both modus operandi and self-esteem between two of the greatest singer-songwriters of the past fifty years. And while the highly prolific Dylan embarked on his self-proclaimed never-ending tour many years ago – and may indeed be “going down that dirt road until his eyes begin to bleed” – the more seclusive Cohen simultaneously shied away from all public appearances, adding just three records of new material in the past twenty years to an already modest discography.

The last time I stood on a stage was 14 years ago“, the 73-year-old Leonard Cohen told an enthusiastic audience last Saturday at Rosenborg Castle in the centre of Copenhagen, “I was just a 60 year old kid with a crazy dream!It may well be that Cohen has been forced out of his voluntary exile by suddenly finding himself in financial dire straits (while Cohen was off at a Buddhist temple practising the art of paying no heed to the material world, his long time manager allegedly assisted him in this endeavour by relieving him of his entire fortune), but the show turned out to be anything but a has-been’s tired attempt at a cash-in. The price of admittance was steep as hell, but the audience got their money’s worth.

Impeccably dressed in a double-breasted pin-striped suit, and even sporting a fedora, a thin and notably aged Leonard Cohen and his amazing band took the stage at 2100 hours with something resembling military precision. With the notable exception of songs from the unremittingly bleak (even by Cohen standards) masterpiece Songs of Love and Hate from 1973, the Phil Spector-produced (!) Death of a Ladies’ Man from 1977, and – oddly, but understandably enough : Cohen’s latest record, the rather unfocused Dear Heather from 2004, the audience was treated to a career-spanning show with emphasis on his later material, and with a lot of crowd pleasers.

As has been the case since the mid-80s, the opening slot was reserved for the graceful, Lorca-influenced “Dance Me to the End of Love”, which was quickly followed by the less romantic apocalyptic vision of “The Future”. “Ain’t No Cure for Love” marked the first of six songs to be performed from Cohens 1988 comeback record I’m Your Man. The back-to-back performances of “Everybody Knows” and “In My Secret Life” showcased the talents of background vocalist, and long-time collaborator, Sharon Robinson. A definite highlight was the 1974-penned “Who by Fire” with a phenomenal intro by the formidable laud player Javier Mas, who spun his magic all night from a comfy-chair at the right corner of the stage.

Cohen and band closed the first set with the fed-up prayer for peace that is “Anthem”, including a sadly misplaced appraisal of “the battalions” who once occupied the drill ground that provided the setting for the show, but who were now off fighting for peace and prosperity in a world, which Cohen lamented, was “plunged into chaos and disorder“. This should come as no surprise from a singer who named his band ‘The Army’ back in the day, but it was nevertheless the one remark, that didn’t hit home with everyone that night.

After a short break, Cohen and his choir girls returned for a tongue-in-cheek performance of that self-reflective undressing of the music industry, “Tower of Song”. Both the maestro’s clumsy piano thumping and the lines “I was born like this, I had no choice, I was born with the gift of a golden voice” garnered huge applause from an audience that was unusually attentive by Danish standards. During the fade-out Cohen joked about his dabbling in religion, philosophy and literature for years, only to find the key that would unlock the mysteries of the universe in the seemingly endless background-cooing of the choir girls. “De-doo-dam-dam“, indeed.

The great crowd interaction continued through “Hallelujah” and “I’m Your Man” – with an uncanny percentage of the audience seemingly familiar with other than the choruses of the songs. There were four 20-year-old kids next to me mouthing every word! But people also knew when to shut up: During “Suzanne”, the song that started it all, you could have heard a pin drop.

The same went for the beautiful rendition of “The Gypsy’s Wife”, where several members of the band were given the opportunity to shine. Definitely a clever move from a singer, who for the past twenty years by and large seems to have favoured a peculiar popcorn sound over real instrumentation (Who was it wrote the lines: “the maestro says it’s Mozart, but it sounds like bubblegum“?) The regular set closed with the virtuous (and again) Lorca-inspired “Take This Waltz”, and while the audience wasn’t actually answering this call, as was reportedly the case in Dublin, everyone seemed to hang on every word that was delivered from the veteran performer.

The encores found the elder statesman running back on stage for a couple of early hits like “So long, Marianne” and “Sisters of Mercy”. In between, Cohen introduced “If It Be Your Will” (a personal favourite!) as a song written at a point where he thought he could not go on. “But since then“, he continued, “I’ve been introduced to the wonders of Prozac“. The author recited the first verse, and the rest of the song was performed by the Webb sisters on acoustic guitar and harp, their angelic voices soaring and swirling about a mute and motionless Cohen.

Almost two and a half hours into the show things kicked up speed one last time with the reasonable choice of “Closing Time”. At this point, one couldn’t help being baffled at the 73-year-old Cohen’s ability to actually memorize all the lyrics of every song performed, and to keep up with the almost rap-like tempo of what everyone thought was the final song. Every member of the band was presented for the umpteenth time, and then a humble and sincerely grateful Leonard Cohen thanked the audience for their continued support, and for “keeping the songs alive“.

But Cohen and band was called out one last time, and the first lines of “I Tried to Leave You” were met with the expected laughs and rounds of applause. After that, closing time indeed hit with an a cappella recital of the unpublished psalm “Whither Thou Goest”. Once again, Cohen took a bow and assured us that he would remember this night for a long time.

That goes both ways, Maestro.

Leonard Cohen is playing an additional concert in Copenhagen at Forum on October 17.

Photo by Henry Sørensen