Review: Leonard Cohen unleashes odyssey of his work at the Straz

Cohen performs Dance Me to the End of Love on Monday night. EDMUND D. FOUNTAIN   |   Times
Cohen performs Dance Me to the End of Love on Monday night.EDMUND D. FOUNTAIN | Times
Published March 19 2013
Updated March 20 2013

TAMPA — When Leonard Cohen released Various Positions in 1984, the top five songs in the nation belonged to Hall and Oates, Chaka Kahn, Cyndi Lauper, Duran Duran and Wham!. So you can see how the album's centerpiece, a five-minute ballad simmering with religious symbolism and heartache, failed to make a splash.

But time was kind to the Canadian icon, and over the next 30 years, Hallelujah became one of the world's most acclaimed and adored songs. It has been covered by more than 300 artists, from Bob Dylan to Bono to Adam Sandler.

But if Hallelujah's legacy has eclipsed that of its creator, you'd never know it from Cohen's concert on Monday at the Straz Center in Tampa. Hallelujah was but one high of many during a nearly 31/2-hour odyssey of gospel blues and devastating poetry, delivered with deep love and dry wit. By the end, the near-capacity crowd of 2,411 felt as if they'd just been read a novel or three, with the author's deathbed baritone still rumbling in their ears.

At 78, Cohen seems immune to the mandates of a go-go-go culture. Each of his 28 songs felt unhurried, with even his jauntiest numbers — Everybody Knows, Ain't No Cure For Love, First We Take Manhattan — meandering at their own unfussy pace.

And yet there is plenty of life left in Cohen's bony frame. All night, he skipped and skulked and dropped to his knees more often than any septuagenarian should, cutting a dapper, mischievous figure at center stage.

His strength as a songwriter is drawing you out of your time and into his, blending back-alley jazz (Bird on the Wire), sold-my-soul blues (Darkness) and heart-rending cheek-to-cheek ballads (Famous Blue Raincoat, Show Me the Place) into a singular soundtrack to an era long since lost. Everybody Knows was a bouncy Parisian story-song with unlikely disco bones, while I'm Your Man was a saucy, salty cabaret come-on.

His voice, a beyond-the-grave grumble with limited range to begin with, has aged about as well as you'd expect — but Cohen has compensated by writing songs that suit it. Cuts from 2012's Old Ideas, like the loping, redemptive Amen, felt as classic as his classics. A particular highlight: The darkly clever Going Home, which imagined a smirking Creator laying into Cohen the cocky artiste ("He's a lazy bastard living in a suit" trying to write "a manual for living with defeat").

Cohen's pan-global influences were reflected in his dynamite nine-piece backing band, comprising members hailing from England, Austin, Mexico and Moldova. Guitarist Javier Mas wowed on Who By Fire and Lover Lover Lover, and guitarist Mitch Watkins and organist Neil Larsen delivered tonally perfect solos on Bird On the Wire.

So great was Cohen's band that he rarely co-opted the spotlight entirely for himself (though when he did — the sparse Suzanne, the noir poem A Thousand Kisses Deep — it was breathtaking). Instead, Cohen twice handed lead vocal duties to his backup singers: to songwriting collaborator Sharon Robinson for a tear-jerking Alexandra Leaving, and again to harp-strumming duo the Webb Sisters on If It Be Your Will.

It is telling that these two songs, which Cohen wrote and others sang, were among the night's highest, holiest moments — telling, of course, because when he finally got around to Hallelujah, it took a second to register what we all were hearing. Cohen's Hallelujah has never been the most beloved version — that honor probably belongs to the late Jeff Buckley — but it remains his own, coursing with fluttering mandolins and the heavenly heft of a Hammond B3.

During each chorus, the lights above the stage shone outward to illuminate the audience, and there were chills in the air when, for the final reprise, Cohen kneeled and tilted his head to the heavens, just high enough for the crowd to see his shuttered eyes. The song clocked in at 7 minutes and 23 seconds, and was worth every blessed second.

Cohen doesn't need Hallelujah to be remembered; his place in music's promised land is secure. Even if he's in no rush to get there.