Every once in a while, you get to witness a musical performance that has the makings of becoming a memorable, transcendent experience that you instantly know you won't soon forget. Reflecting on such events often adds color and grandiose to said experiences. However, when that feeling of jaw-dropping amazement takes control of your senses as the performance is unfolding before you, it's hard to deny the sheer magnitude of the event. This really is the best (and the most appropriate) manner to begin my review of Leonard Cohen's marvelous show at the Straz Center in downtown Tampa on Monday night. The 78-year-old Canadian singer-songwriter, author and poet along with his magnificent nine-piece ensemble of musicians and backing singers delivered an absolutely awesome marathon of music that none of the near sell-out crowd in the gorgeous Carol Morsani Hall will soon forget. [Text by Gabe, photos by Tracy.]
As band members found their places on the massive stage shortly after 8:15 p.m., a spry and elegantly dressed man sprinted from side stage to a microphone perched at its center. The fit and healthy runner turned out to be the star of the show, Cohen himself. A classy black suit, grey shirt and sporty black fedora atop his head, Cohen looked more like a member of the Rat Pack who'd crashed the stage. But when that otherworldly, recognizable, deep booming voice filled the hall with the opening strains of "Dance Me To The End of Love" and the sharply-dressed man onstage dropped to his knees to belt and croon, there was no doubt we were about to be treated to an amazing trip through the collection of tunes Cohen was about to impart on us.
Beautifully accompanied by British back-up singing sister duo Charley and Hattie Webb and longtime collaborator and partner Sharon Robinson, Cohen's distinctive baritone vocals cleverly interwove with the three angelic vocalists who were positioned to his immediate left. Cohen classics "Bird on the Wire" and "Everybody Knows" benefited from the wall of vocals that gorgeously wafted in and out of an immaculate-sounding mix that really showed off the multi-talented band and especially the work of guitar and bandurria player Javier Mas. A personal highlight was the spoken word performance of "A Thousand Kisses Deep." As a recorded piece of music, it's a force of nature but as a carefully recited poem, it gained a new level of depth and romanticism.
The 11 songs soared and elated the appreciative crowd. But, alas, it was only the first half in the two-set concert. A short intermission split the evening into two halves and gave audience members ample time to discuss the brilliance of what they'd just witnessed ... and gave them a crack at muscling their way through a congested mob at the merch table to buy any of the enormous items that were available.
Cohen spiced up the evening with plenty of witty between-song banter but his funniest line came at the opening of the second set. As he took his place behind a keyboard that awaited him center-stage, Cohen looked out at the crowd that was firmly in place and anxious for more and dryly stated, "Thank you for not going home!" which drew hearty laughs all around.
If the first set was the appetizer, the second — which opened with the staple "Tower of Song" — was indeed the sumptuous main course. Barreling his way through, undoubtedly, his most famous compositions, Cohen consistently raised the bar with each subsequent number and gave us cold hard proof of what makes him such a beloved entertainer and showman.
"Suzanne," "Waiting for the Miracle" and "Lover Lover Lover" brilliantly displayed Cohen's unique and unmistakable lyrical craft and his solemn, emotive, enchanting delivery.
Cohen took advantage of several opportunities to introduce band members and show his appreciation of their work and dedication. The most glorious tribute, however, was given when Sharon Robinson took the spotlight and belted out "Alexandra Leaving," one of the standout tracks from 2001's Ten New Songs album. Robinson's gorgeous, subtle vocals filled the theater and a hush fell over the entire crowd as she sang.
To say that Cohen's reading of his often-covered tune "Hallelujah" was a show-stopper would be a gross understatement; again, he fell to his knees to squeeze out every ounce of passion that the treasured composition merits. I can't think of anything else I'd rather be doing on a Monday night than seeing and hearing living legend Leonard Cohen effortlessly flip through his illustrious songbook, and I know I wasn't alone in that thought.
A particularly lively rendition of the infectious encore closer "First We Take Manhattan" was another personal highlight. A favorite of mine, I wasn't sure if he'd get to this one and was elated when the familiar opening synth chords started to pump and fill the room.
An apt close to the second encore and the final performance of the night, "Closing Time," capped a fabulous performance that clocked in at just over three hours.
As Leonard Cohen fans have always known, there is no one quite like him. His charisma, style and talent are unparalleled. His voice is one of the most recognizable in the business. And, as I can proudly state after witnessing my very first Cohen concert, his gift for live performance is unmatched. Monday night's Cohen show is easily one of the best and most inspiring performances I've ever been lucky enough to witness and one I'll undoubtedly be talking about for many years to come.
Dance Me To The End of Love
Bird on the Wire
Who By Fire
Ain’t No Cure For Love
A Thousand Kisses Deep
Tower of Song
Waiting for the Miracle
Show Me the Place
Lover Lover Lover
I’m Your Man
Take This Waltz
So Long, Marianne
First We Take Manhattan
Famous Blue Raincoat
If It Be Your Will