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Monday, March 18, 2013

Leonard Cohen @ Milwaukee Theatre

March 15, 2013

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Leonard Cohen held his audience spellbound through a three-hour show Friday night at the Milwaukee Theatre. His 3,700 fans spanned generations, much as his two long sets spanned the decades, covering favorite songs (and a few obscurities) from the 1960s through the second decade of the present century.

Cohen opened with "Dance Me to the End of Love," performed in the downbeat two-step of a Balkan cafe band—an impression heightened by the black suits and fedoras worn by most of the musicians. So garbed, Cohen resembled a godfather of Eastern European soul as he sang of the inevitable dissolution of romantic love.

The mood was sustained through much of the concert, with breaks for the uplift of divine erotic ecstasy in "Hallelujah" and moments of self-deprecating humor. "I say to myself, 'Lighten up Cohen!'" he exclaimed to appreciative laughter from the audience. And yet, no one comes to his recordings or performances looking for a happy pill. His songs inhabit the melancholy spaces between reality and perfection, written in cadences that combine sacred and profane, high and low in a Walt Whitman quest to shake language to life by merging the literate with the vernacular.

In a gesture seldom seen since Al Jolson, Cohen often performed on his knees as if in supplication; more often he sang slightly slouched with hands cupped around the microphone like an old-fashioned nightclub singer; occasionally he took up guitar and on the sardonic "Democracy" he performed on Jew's harp.

The multi-talented, multi-instrumental band members buoyed the low rumble of his voice in carefully choreographed arrangements. Cohen looked on in respect during guitarist Mitch Watkins' deep blues solo during "Bird on the Wire" as organist Neil Larsen infused the song with gospel on the Hammond B3. The spotlight often fell on the band, especially Javier Mas' Mediterranean breaks on assorted string instruments and violinist Alexandru Bublitchi’s Gypsy tangents. Back-up singer and collaborator Sharon Robinson sang her own number, "Alexandra Leaving," and her fellow singers, Charlie and Hattie Webb, took charge of “If It be Your Will.” Bassist Roscoe Beck was even allowed to solo on "Who By Fire"—adding interesting texture and lasting not a moment too long.

The musical range was broad, from the minor-key disco lament of "Everybody Knows" through the surging rock of Cohen's portrait of political fanaticism, "First We Take Manhattan." There was poetry recited to an unobtrusive atmospheric backdrop in “A Thousand Kisses Deep.” The sparse arrangement for "Suzanne," the hymn to a doomed affair that introduced Cohen to listeners in the ’60s, evoked without replicating the original recording.

The concert was well paced by its gracious host. "I just didn't want to make a nuisance of myself," he joked about his 38-year absence from Milwaukee stages. "I hope it's not three or four decades till we meet again." Time will tell.
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