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A Review of Leonard Cohen's Concert at Atlanta's Fox Theatre, October 20, 2009, by David Price

I don’t know if I like Leonard Cohen’s new-found popularity. For an old contrarian like me, he was the perfect entertainer, if that is the right word. No one in my northeast Georgia community had ever heard of him, and not once in 35 years had I heard him on the radio. Think about that. All the crud they play on the radio and not three minutes for “The Sisters of Mercy.”

To say that Cohen has existed under the radar of American media is an understatement. While enormously popular in his native Canada and in Europe, the handful of Cohen fans in this country had to make do with his occasional albums, if you could find them (remember, this was way before iTunes).

A poet and novelist from Montreal, Cohen had moderate success while still an undergraduate with his books of poems, Let Us Compare Mythologies in 1956 and The Spice Box of Earth in 1961. After holing up on the Greek island of Hydra for a few years, he produced the novels The Favourite Game and Beautiful Losers in the 1960s.

Around 1967 Cohen moved to New York, staying at the Chelsea Hotel and falling into an eccentric orbit between Andy Warhol on the one side and the burgeoning folksinger crowd that included Bob Dylan and Judy Collins on the other. Collins was an early proponent of Cohen’s songwriting, recording “Suzanne” along with many others and urging the painfully shy poet onto the stage, where his hypnotic tunes and probing, literate, and sometimes messianic lyrics began capturing a small, but dedicated following.

Cohen is definitely not everyone’s cup of tea and oranges. His musical style echoes “The Velvet Underground” and the outsider persona of Warhol protégé Nico, with whom Cohen shares a vocal range of approximately half an octave. Critics complained that Cohen fit his own description as “the grocer of despair” and admittedly several songs feature references to suicide and razors. But those critics miss the point—and even the humor—behind Cohen’s “ditties” as he sometimes refers to them, which in reality celebrate the redemption and even salvation from the human condition that is possible not through religion but by simple mercies, like this one expressed in "Song of Bernadette."

So many hearts I find, broke like yours and mine
Torn by what we have done and can't undo
I just want to hold you, won't you let me hold you
Like Bernadette would do

While Cohen may have been invisible, his songs were everywhere except on the radio. At last count, more than 2,000 covers of Leonard Cohen songs have been recorded (the best, by far, being Jennifer Warnes’ “Famous Blue Raincoat” CD, which was recently reissued). And once in a while Cohen would turn up in odd places that at least confirmed that somewhere, somebody out there was listening, too. Robert Altman’s quirky cult classic McCabe and Mrs. Miller in 1971 featured three early Cohen songs, “The Stranger Song,” “Sisters of Mercy,” and “Winter Lady.” But then there was a looooong drought until Cohen popped up again briefly as a French Interpol cop on an episode of Miami Vice in the 1980s (I swear, you can look it up).

After that, Cohen sightings were as rare as ivory-billed woodpeckers, and about as hard to confirm. In 2001, though, something very odd happened. I was watching the cartoon movie Shrek with my daughter, and suddenly I heard John Cale (of Velvet Underground fame) singing “Hallelujah,” a 1984 Cohen ditty that I could never get even my best friends to listen to without rolling their eyes. The song has become so popular that last year it occupied both the number one and number two spots on the British pop charts.

Now, all of a sudden, Cohen is, if not ubiquitous, at least showing up in the mainstream news. For the last two years he has been filling concert halls and stadiums across Europe and around the world for performances that one jaded music critic after another has called “the best concert I ever attended.” Then he was named to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which seemed odd; and in New York, they even unveiled a plaque to memorialize his famous tryst with Janis Joplin at the Chelsea Hotel, which long ago resulted in the song of the same name.

But when Cohen’s U.S. tour dates were announced in 2009, I could take comfort in the fact that not one Southern city was on the list. At least here he would remain unknown, and I could continue my little one-man fan club in blissful solitude. Then I got an e-mail that the Cohen tour had added the Fox Theatre in Atlanta to the list. I held out for about 15 minutes after the tickets went on sale before buying mine.

For a month I sweated bullets wondering if the show would even go on. Cohen is, after all, 75 years old, and in September he collapsed on stage in Spain. Turned out to be nothing but a little food poisoning. Finally, October 20 arrived, and I found myself walking up Peachtree Street in the middle of what had to be the oddest crowd to grace downtown in many years. There were old folks from my generation in a sea of black sweaters and the occasional business suit jostling with unreconstructed hippies. Then the demographics skipped a generation, and there was an undercurrent of 20-somethings with a vaguely Beat-generation odor about them. I surmised that they had probably stumbled upon Cohen via his son, Adam, who is making a name for himself in coffee houses across Canada and the Northeast. Or maybe they were Shrek fans.

In the packed Fox Theatre, as the lights went down and the faux stars twinkled overhead, Cohen stepped—no, skipped—out on stage and launched into “the best concert I have ever attended.” I cannot tell you the order of the songs, but they were all there: “Famous Blue Raincoat,” “So Long, Marianne,” “First We Take Manhattan,” “Bird On A Wire,” and Cohen’s haunting rendition of the French Resistance anthem “The Partisan.” With Roscoe Beck’s bass pumping like a heartbeat and Javier Mas’ playing of a thousand tiny notes on the 12-string guitar, the audience held its collective breath for the familiar lines, “An old woman gave us shelter, kept us hidden in the garret, then the soldiers came. She died without a whisper.”

While Cohen’s reputation for dark lyrics is justly deserved, the three-hour concert (including three encores) spun wildly from the wry “Tower of Song” to the randy “I’m Your Man” and back again to the desperate “Hallelujah.” Cohen himself marveled at the solos by Mas, by keyboardist Neil Larsen, and by Dino Soldo on saxophone, clarinet and a host of other wind instruments. At times Cohen gave the stage over to his long-time collaborator, Sharon Robinson, and to the ethereal Webb Sisters for their crystalline “If It Be Your Will.”

As for Cohen, the thin baritone of his youth has given way to a rumbling bass that is a better fit for all of his songs, if at times so deep that I swear you can count the wave crests. Early in the concert, Cohen removed his trademark fedora and remarked that he did not know when or if he would pass this way again, so he promised to pour everything into this concert. It was a promise kept.

Now if they would just play something on the damn radio.

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