Confessions of a Man in a Fedora
Leonard Cohen at the Barclays Center
By JON PARELES
Published: December 21, 2012
During his concert at the Barclays Center on Thursday night, Leonard Cohen spent a lot of time in an unusual pose for a rock star: on his knees, like a supplicant or a suitor. Those are just two of the roles he takes in his songs. He’s also a lover, a cad, a penitent, a believer, a cynic, a comedian, a kindly codger and a prophet of catastrophe.
Leonard Cohen brought his “Old Ideas” tour to the Barclays Center on Thursday night.
Chad Batka for The New York Times
Mr. Cohen, now 78, playing an unhurried three-hour show.
And, at 78, he is calmly and suavely tenacious; he released an album this year, “Old Ideas,” and sprinkled a few of its songs through the concert. The show stretched to three hours of music (plus an intermission), outlasting some of his reverent fans.
“I promise you we’ll give you everything we got,” he said near the beginning of the show, and in his leisurely, elegant way, he did.
In the years since financial troubles forced him back on the road, Mr. Cohen has perfected the arena concert as a miraculously hushed ritual. His age is a matter of pride, a rhetorical foundation and a long-running joke; he sang, “My hair is gray/I ache in the places where I used to play,” in “Tower of Song,” which was released back in 1988. (He also, while playing a proudly dinky electric keyboard, used his elbow for a glissando, a Jerry Lee Lewis flourish.)
Onstage, the dress was formal: dark suits for the band and Mr. Cohen, who wears a fedora that he tilts slightly differently for certain songs, or doffs in deference to his audience or musicians. The backdrop was simply a tall, lighted curtain, sometimes with giant silhouettes of Mr. Cohen and his band projected on it. His three backup singers had synchronized, undulating, dignified moves. And the sound was both detailed and subdued, making the audience lean forward to listen as Mr. Cohen intoned his painstakingly balanced lyrics.
His songs rarely tell stories or proclaim easy emotions. Instead, with diction that is often measured and biblical, they mingle regrets and desires, hope and disillusionment, spiritual aspirations and carnal appreciation. Most often, they make lists: of a lover’s vows in “I’m Your Man,” of bitter realizations in “Everybody Knows,” of metaphorical choreography in “Dance Me to the Edge of Love.”
Yet while the lyrics are absolutely central — Mr. Cohen simply recited one song, “A Thousand Kisses Deep,” over sustained keyboard chords — they would not sustain a three-hour concert without musical variety. Quietly but ingeniously, Mr. Cohen’s internationally sourced band (with the bassist Roscoe Beck as music director) moved the songs across genres and continents: to blues or country, to Gypsy or hoedown violin lines (from Alexandru Bublitchi) and Middle Eastern modes.
Mitch Watkins on guitar provided American roots; Javier Mas, on long-necked Spanish lutes called bandurrias and on the archilaud (or archlute), which was tuned like an oud, moved some songs to the Mediterranean. Neil Larsen on keyboards — usually a Hammond B-3 organ — conjured ghosts of gospel. And for “First We Take Manhattan,” a thumping beat and flashing, circling stage lights — suddenly active after hours of more restrained use — brought the show a moment of disco.
Mr. Cohen places his songs between the earthbound and the sublime, and his performance embodied that contrast in the vocals: his grave voice, a baritone that has lately been plunging toward bass but will still carry a tune, and the weightless near-whispers of his female backup singers. When his longtime collaborator Sharon Robinson stepped forward to sing lead on “Alexandra Leaving,” it was clear how much she had been holding back. The English sisters Hattie and Charley Webb, playing Celtic harp and acoustic guitar, performed “If It Be Your Will,” turning it into a celestial invocation.
The unhurried yet absolutely concentrated performance was a world away from other pop events and a haven for long attention spans. With precise artifice, Mr. Cohen made it appear to be an utterly natural setting. When he returned for the last few encores, near midnight, he skipped his way to center stage.
“I hope that we’ll be on the road for a few more years at least,” Mr. Cohen had said earlier, acknowledging mortality and just as urbanely shrugging it off.
A version of this review appeared in print on December 22, 2012, on page C1 of the New York edition with the headline: Confessions of a Man in a Fedora.