Leonard Cohen at Milwaukee Theatre
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It’s hard to imagine that Leonard Cohen might need to be playing live at this point in his career. At 78 years old, he released his highest-charting album, Old Ideas, last year, but his legacy as a poet, singer, and songwriter has been assured at least since he last visited Milwaukee almost four decades ago. Few non-Dylan songwriters have a more widely revered canon, but rather than rely on his most acclaimed material, Cohen stuck more to the latter-day work that clearly inspired the improbably lively performance he gave an appreciative audience Friday night at the Milwaukee Theatre.
If Cohen were to focus on the irreverent folk of his ’60s and ’70s heyday, one might expect him to spend most of his time onstage sitting on a stool with an acoustic guitar. But Cohen rarely picked up an instrument for this performance, and perhaps appropriately, selections from his first five albums were few and far between. Instead, Cohen leaned heavily on his comeback period, drawing liberally from 1988’s I’m Your Man and 1992’s The Future, making for an oddly danceable, often synth-driven performance that showcased the longtime influence of his frequent songwriting collaborator Sharon Robinson. Robinson sang on most songs, even taking the lead on “Alexandra Leaving,” and she was joined by U.K. duo The Webb Sisters, who also contributed occasional harp and guitar accompaniment. All members of Cohen’s band had opportunities to showcase their individual talents; the 12-string acoustic work by Javier Mas was particularly impressive, especially his introductory solo to “Who By Fire.”
Cohen’s vocal range has been extremely limited for decades, but over time, his gruff whisper has become a more recognizable calling card than his youthful singing voice ever was. Tailoring such classics as “Bird On The Wire” and “Suzanne” to his deep, breathy tone didn’t hamper their effectiveness in the slightest, and if anything, his renditions of songs like “Amen” and “Show Me The Place” from Old Ideas were richer and more lifelike than the studio versions. Of course, it was his gracious and peculiar magnetism that captivated the crowd much more than his actual singing. A far cry from the dark, pensive persona portrayed in many of his songs, Cohen’s self-effacing humor and obvious gratitude toward his band and his audience carried the performance as much as the music.
Through two sets spanning three hours, the missteps were rare. Perhaps Cohen’s inner Canadian smartass gets a kick out of U.S. crowds missing the irony of “Democracy,” but the song fell a little flat despite its boisterous reception. The electronic sheen of “First We Take Manhattan” felt a bit out of place and outdated in the encore as well. Otherwise, Cohen and the band integrated new songs and new arrangements of oldies quite well. The most transcendent moments came in probably the most predictable places, as the second set climaxed with a remarkably powerful rendition of “Hallelujah,” prompting a spellbound standing ovation from the crowd. To begin his second and final encore, Cohen sang “Famous Blue Raincoat” with an unexpected urgency, the band augmenting him tastefully and unobtrusively. Playing only a handful of his most legendary tunes may have been a risky move, but it suggests that Cohen is more interested in the current state of his art than whatever legacy others would project for him.