Make us your home page

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

Cohen performs Dance Me to the End of Love on Monday night.


Cohen performs Dance Me to the End of Love on Monday night.

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.

Review: Leonard Cohen unleashes odyssey of his work at the Straz 03/19/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 19, 2013 10:06pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Glen Campbell's wife Kim discusses challenges, guilt caregivers of Alzheimer's patients, others face

    Life Times

    If there's one thing Kim Campbell would change about caregiving for Alzheimer's patients, it's the attitude so many of us have toward transferring a loved one from home to a long-term care facility. According to Campbell, it's often the most kind, loving decision you can make. It's not a sign of failure, but one of …

    Kim Campbell, wife of country music legend Glen Campbell, is acknowledged by those attending the free event where she shared the story of her personal journey with Alzheimer???‚??„?s disease and the struggles she faced caring for her husband on Friday (5/26/17) at the Suncoast Hospice's Empath Health Service Center in Clearwater. Empath Choices for Care, a member of Empath Health, and Arden Courts Memory Care hosted the free event where Kim shared her story to help others understand the early stages, how the disease changes lives, the challenges families face and the role of caregiver.
  2. What happened when I took my dad to a Pitbull concert

    Music & Concerts

    TAMPA — "So, you know how you like Pitbull?" I asked my dad. "We can see him."

    Selfie of Divya Kumar and Anand Kumar at Pitbull/Enrique Iglesias concert.
  3. Tampa City Council votes to accept travel invitation from Cuban ambassador


    The invitation came to Tampa City Council chairwoman Yvonne Yolie Capin in a June 9 letter from Cuban ambassador to the United States José Ramón Cabañas Rodriguez.

    The Tampa City Council voted 6-0, with Frank Reddick out of the room, to respond to a travel invitation from Cuban ambassador to the United States José Ramón Cabañas Rodriguez.
  4. Top things to do in Tampa Bay for June 25


    St. Pete Pride Festival: The daytime festival covers Central Avenue's Grand Central District with more than 350 vendors, multiple stages, live music, art and food. 9 a.m., Grand Central District, 2429 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. Free. (727) 342-0084.

    Kristen Whalen poses for a photo before the start of the St. Pete Pride Parade in St. Petersburg last year. It's that time of year again, so check with us for your planning purposes. [LUIS SANTANA  |   Times (2016)]
  5. Top things to do in Tampa Bay for June 24


    St. Pete Pride Block Party and Night Parade: St. Pete Pride's popular parade moves to downtown St. Petersburg's scenic waterfront. The block party brings DJs, food and drinks starting at 2 p.m. The parade steps off at Fifth Ave NE and Bayshore at 7 p.m. with fireworks at 9:45 p.m. 2 p.m., North Straub Park, Fifth …

    Thousands line the streets of Central Ave. during the St. Pete Pride Parade in St. Petersburg.  [Saturday, June 25, 2016] [Photo Luis Santana | Times]