Way back in January, I sent Aaron an email telling him that I was about to buy my first set of concert tickets of 2013, and it would be to see Leonard Cohen. I knew this would delight him. I did not realize just how much. When I described the upcoming show as me crossing one more act from my "must see them at least once" list, he replied "No, Dude, it's more than that. It's IMPORTANT. Leonard is not just another artist on your checklist of bands to see. He's special, separate. This... this cuts to the very fabric of things. It's NOT just another concert. It's an EXPERIENCE."
And so the bar had been set.
This show came perilously close to not happening. It was originally scheduled for Saturday, March 9, but on the day before, the show was postponed due to a flu outbreak among Cohen's band. Six weeks later, give or take, and Regina was treated to the final performance of Cohen's 2013 North American tour. He's now got a nice break before starting up anew on June 18 in Paris.
The tickets promised that the show would begin promptly at 8:00 p.m. Leonard Cohen strikes me as someone who does not mess around when it comes to advertised start times, so we got there with plenty of time to spare. I used this extra time productively; namely, to taunt Aaron. I didn't even mention that there was a spare seat next to us that remained open all night. It could have been his. Instead, we just gave ourselves additional butt and leg room.
Sure enough, at 8:00 on the nose, the omnipresent Sheila Coles took the stage to welcome us all and tell us that the show was about to begin. The voice of God boomed down from the heavens above with the ten-minute warning. I taunted Aaron some more. Five-minute warning. More taunting. I began to run out of things to rub in Aaron's face. I gave up when I was reduced to thinking of things like "Hey Aaron. See that Boston Pizza ad on the rink board? There's a chance LEONARD might see that Boston Pizza ad on the rink board!"
The lights went out and an army of men in fedoras swarmed the stage, silhouetted against the curtain that hung behind them. People applauded intermittently as if they thought one of these men might be Leonard Cohen, but weren't sure which, and didn't want to give inordinate levels of applause to the wrong person. But when the last fedora'd figure sprinted - sprinted! - onto the stage, there was no mistaking who it was. He launched into Dance Me to the End of Love before apologizing for the inconvenience of rescheduling the show. "I hope this isn't a farewell tour, but in a sense, we're all on a farewell tour. I promise you this, tonight we'll give you all we got."
It would be impossible to argue that he failed. With one brief intermission, the show ran until nearly midnight. 31 songs, including three encores (thank you, internet, for keeping track so I don't have to). He ran onto the stage and skipped off. When singing, he'd crouch down to the ground or drop to his knees. This 78-year-old put forth more effort over four hours than I do in an average week. I can't even sit for as long as he can perform for.
Now, I'm not a Leonard Cohen expert. I'm not Aaron. I have I'm Your Man and I know the proverbial greatest hits, but I was concerned that I'd only know a handful of songs. Not so! Cohen stuck largely to old favourites, and even better, the sound was actually good (especially for a hockey arena), with the vocals loud and clear, so you didn't have to know a song to follow along with it. His recitation of A Thousand Kisses Deep deserves special mention; the crowd was mesmerized and you could have heard a proverbial pin drop while he was speaking.
And his band was incredible; I've repeatedly claimed that I cannot tell whether a musician is any good or merely faking their way through it, but there was no denying the talent on display. The band, roughly 10 people in total, had come from all over the world. I suppose if you're Leonard Cohen, you've earned the privilege of picking and choosing the best.
The set was very simple. One giant curtain behind the band, two big screens on either side of the stage. Whoever was manning the cameras did fine work, getting closeups of the emotion in Cohen's face, and letting you see just how skilled his musicians really are.
My mom had seen Cohen in Saskatoon last year, and she was surprised at what an entertainer he was. I can see that - he's this serious poet with the deep voice, and while his lyrics reveal wit, you wouldn't necessarily expect him to be quite so playful on stage. But Cohen laughed and joked, took the time to repeatedly introduce and compliment his band members, and just generally seemed to enjoy himself; an attitude that couldn't help but rub off on the audience. By contrast, I saw Bob Dylan years ago and he was there to play songs, that's it. No talking. No smiling.
It wouldn't be a concert review if I didn't complain about the drunken idiots around me, but I really thought I'd get away without having to do so this time. I expect some morons nearby when I'm watching some unknown local band in a bar, but c'mon. This is Leonard Cohen and his fans are... well... old. I expect a certain degree of civility here. Nope. We had these two drunk old women behind us who tried their damndest to spoil the show for everyone around them. I should have known we were in for a "treat," given that they needed first aid before the show even began because one of them turfed it on the stairs. They talked loudly for the first four songs - and look at those songs. The Future? Bird on a Wire? Everybody Knows? Classics. You should listen to them. Or hey, don't - that's cool if that's not your thing. But I paid to be there, so leave me alone as I listen to them. Finally, I turned around to give them hell only to find Mika already in the process of doing so. She was a lot more polite about it than I would have been. This just made the drunks enter into a conversation about precisely how loud and disruptive they were being (not in an argumentative way, really, merely inquisitive), and THAT was when I told them to shut up. Initially, they did not; the louder of the two tried to explain herself to me, see, they had been talking but they hadn't known that we could hear them and y'know, they were just... and I turned back around, gave them The Look, and simply said "ENOUGH."
The lady sitting to my right seemed awfully pleased with this.
The good news is that the two drunks more or less gave up on talking during the songs. This was good! But when Cohen finished Who By Fire, the louder one said "at least I can still whistle!" and let out this this really shrill ear-blaster, as she would proceed to do after every song. This was still really irritating but at least it was somewhat situationally appropriate. Not so appropriate was yelling "I LOVE YOU LEO" at the top of her lungs during quiet parts of songs. Again, listen or don't, just don't interrupt the listening of everyone around you. Or at least leave ME be. That's what matters.
I did find one part kind of funny. The louder of the two was clearly the group leader. The second one liked yelling too, but not quite as much, and didn't have the creativity, so she'd just yell whatever the first one said, only quieter and with less enthusiasm. So you'd get exchanges like this:
Cohen: "They sentenced me to twenty years of boredom..." Drunk #1: "YEAH! BOREDOM! WOOOOOO!" Drunk #2: "Yeah. Boredom."
It got to a point that not only was I fantasizing about stabbing them, but I was composing new lyrics to Hallelujah in my head so that I could sing while I did it. (I'd post them here but I never made it too far - I mean, obviously the knife would move right through ya - but I don't share works in progress.) But then the most amazing thing happened... they left at intermission! I don't know if they went somewhere else so that they could dance, or somewhere that they could drink, or if they were just too stupid and didn't realize the show hadn't ended, or what. The important thing is that they were no longer near us. This was the kind of wonderful development that never happens, not to me, and then it DID. This made me so happy. I did hear inappropriate yelling from far away at other points in the show, but I prefer to think that they just went home. I mean, if they did, look at what they'd have missed:
First Set 1. Dance Me to the End of Love 2. The Future 3. Bird on a Wire 4. Everybody Knows 5. Who by Fire 6. Darkness 7. Ain't No Cure for Love 8. Amen 9. Come Healing 10. First We Take Manhattan 11. A Thousand Kisses Deep 12. Anthem
Second Set 13. Tower of Song 14. Suzanne 15. The Gypsy's Wife 16. Waiting for the Miracle 17. Show Me the Place 18. Anyhow 19. Lover Lover Lover 20. Alexandra Leaving (performed by Sharon Robinson) 21. I'm Your Man 22. Hallelujah 23. Take This Waltz
Encore: 24. So Long, Marianne 25. Going Home 26. Closing Time
Encore 2: 27. Famous Blue Raincoat 28. If It Be Your Will (performed by the Webb Sisters) 29. I Can't Forget
Encore 3: 30. I Tried to Leave You 31. Save the Last Dance for Me
I know I said it already, but seriously, look at this! I've been to other shows that were just as long, but I was always ready to go home before the band was. Not on this night. He could have left after Hallelujah and people would have been satisfied. He could have finished up after a rousing rendition of the most obvious choice, Closing Time. No. People applauded so he came right back out and sang some more, finally wrapping it up with the Drifters' Save the Last Dance for Me, with the crew and the instrument techs joining the band on stage. Part of me wanted to stay there and just keep clapping for days, just to see if he'd keep coming out and playing more songs. Make it a test of will. One I would be thrilled to lose. This man has stamina I've never even imagined.
A significant number of people left before the end - Cohen made sure to note that he knew it was late and nobody in the band would take offense if anyone had to go - and I do get it. The original show had been scheduled for a Saturday, when staying out to midnight works better for everyone. On a work night, running 7:00-11:00 might have been a wiser choice, but this was a make-up show and I'm sure at least 90% of the people there had their original tickets with the original start time listed. Changing that was probably just too much hassle to consider. And as a bonus, it made getting out of the parking lot that much easier for those of us who stayed.