Last week, I wrote of the dangers of nostalgia in modern living in relation to the reunion of At The Drive-In. It is a testament to Leonard Cohen that I could never shoehorn in such finger wagging into a review about one of his gigs, although that is unlikely to stop me trying to shoehorn in finger wagging about something else. Stay tuned for what exactly that might be.
The reason is that even after a near half century, Cohen has proven himself to still be frighteningly relevant to his audience, particularly his Irish one, thanks to a schedule of writing and touring that is as regular now as it was ever at any other time in his career.
This relevancy comes in part from the sheer weight of his music and lyrics. Steeped in the writings of literary heavyweights like Lorca, Whitman and Yeats, his canon speaks to universal themes of sex, death, longing and societal turmoil. Some things never go out of style.
For instance, before launching into ‘Democracy’ at last Tuesday’s gig in Kilmainham, a song he wrote around the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the supposed triumph of liberal democracy, he explains that this is not an endorsement of anyone in the US presidential elections. This is despite it being written a good ten years ago.
And it is the universality of his work which has allowed him to connect with tonight’s audience, as the response to many of his songs suggests that his works have played as large a part in the lives and households of many others as they have in my own. The revering hush which characterises most of the evening is punctuated by the sighs at the personal favourites such as ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’ or ‘So Long Marianne’.
But, this is still a Dublin crowd and the silences are also framed by uproarious shows of appreciation, which are now finely honed after four separate stints in as many years: The roar of approval during ‘Tower of Song’ when Cohen explains he was “born with the gift of a golden voice” in tones which are deliberately even more gravelly then usual. The catcalls and leers when he promises to “examine every inch of you” on ‘I’m Your Man’. The spontaneous dancing in the aisles during ‘Take This Waltz’.
For their part, Cohen and his band have honed a tight show, which flies by despite it’s three and a half hours running time. Opener ‘Dance Me To The End of Love’ transitions into ‘The Future’, with some cartwheels from backing vocalists the Webb sisters after the line “white girls dancing”.
Throughout the show Cohen is never anything less than 100% gracious and generous to band and audience. Over the course of the night he introduces each band member at least three times, each time taking off his hat, holding it to his chest and stooping his already bent form towards them with a bow. It is well practiced enough that it is part of the theatrics and yet there is never any question of it seeming insincere.
This is mainly because of the considerable collective musical talent that Cohen has collected about him. From the haunting vocals of the Webb sisters to the astounding intro to ‘Who by Fire’ by Javier Mas on the bandurria, there is ample opportunity for the audience to get the message that Cohen is a ringleader not the sole focus of the night.
This was never more evident than during Sharon Robinson’s rendition of ‘Alexandra Leaving’, a song she co-wrote with Cohen with her performance drawing a standing ovation from the crowd.
So whilst anyone else would be tempted to just let the work speaks for itself, it seems the Canadian septugnarian is fully committed to ringing every last drop from live performance. His patient and deliberative style he brings to everything he does means he is now probably the most vital of the great songwriters to emerge from the twenty century.
It is difficult to recall a moment where he has rushed to the zeitgeist, bar an appearance on Miami Vice. There have been no rash political endorsements (Young) or horror stories of egotistical live shows (Dylan) or attempts to recapture old triumphs (Simon). The songs from his new album Old Ideas fit comfortably alongside those from his first.
After anthemic performances of ‘Hallelujah’ and ‘Take This Waltz’, he skips off stage, soon to return for an encore of ‘First We Take Manhattan’ and ‘So Long Marianne’. During the latter he tells us “you sing so beautifully” and allows the swaying crowd to take over. There is a brief pretence towards departing before ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’, which he signs off with “sincerely, a friend”.
Final song ‘Closing Time’ should probably be played at the end of any night out, given it vividly captures the odd mixture of desperation (“it’s partner won and partner lost, and it’s hell to pay when the fiddler stops”) and resignation (“I raise a glass to the awful truth which you can’t reveal to the ears of youth”) which characterises that hour of the night as well as much of life itself.
Unfortunately for a crowd that appeared nowhere near ready to depart, aside from a scattering of people desperate to beat the traffic, a final bound off stage from the great man tells us that it truly is closing time. Reports from the preceding shows were equally glowing and despite playing for a near 50 hours in recent years, Ireland appears not to have gotten just enough of the “little jew who wrote the bible” just yet.
You can follow Lee on Twitter at @LeeDalyIre