WORLD TOUR 2008-2009

Concerts at the Place des Arts
Montreal, June 23-25, 2008

Review by Bill Brownstein
Photos by Allan LaCroix

The Montreal International Jazz Festival hadn't even officially started, and the feeling was that it had already peaked, that it was a roaring success. Leonard Cohen slew in his three sold-out shows in Place des Arts last Monday through Wednesday, and if the jazz-fest powers-that-be could have hooked up with the papal powers-that-be and assigned sainthood on this country's - hey, probably this planet's - most gifted Jewish-Buddhist poet-balladeer, that would have been done, too. As it was, jazz-fest topper André Ménard handed Cohen's son Adam the festival's highest honour he could, the Montreal International Jazz Festival Spirit Award, with instructions to pass it on to his pop.

Cohen Sr. was back in Europe on Thursday night, continuing his world-wide tour, and was thus unable to attend the outdoor Lenny Love-In, which officially kicked off the jazz fest and attracted an array of songsters, like Adam, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Zachary Richard and Michel Pagliaro, to pay musical homage to him. The scene in front of Place des Arts was transformed into a shrine as thousands and thousands of Montrealers showed up to pay their respects to a native Montrealer, even if the only glimpse they caught of Cohen was on a giant video screen. Like the Place des Arts shows, the outdoor spectacle was as close to a religious experience as you'll find outside of a chapel - and without need for additional stimulants and intoxicants.

Lenny, could you feel all that love, even from England?

Must admit I was a little - nay, a lot - skeptical when word first surfaced from the Hallelujah trail at Place des Arts on Monday about the first of Cohen's shows. Hell ... sorry ... heck, the man hadn't performed on stage in 15 years. And even then, though his words resonated, his voice was on the fragile side. And, oh yeah, he is 73 years old, an age where his contemporaries are singing the praises of Metamucil not Marianne.

After Tuesday night's performance, yet more were converted to the Cohen cause. Some of my most cynical, albeit musically knowledgeable, cronies went on to marvel that the Cohen concerts were among the best they had ever witnessed, and three ranked it best ever.

They insisted they had never been so moved - without benefit of stimulants or intoxicants. They called it euphoric. They laughed, they cried, they didn't want to leave the hall - even after this marathon three-hour gig.

And so I was double-dared to take in Cohen's last show Wednesday. Now I'm a believer. The show was magic. The man is magic. Magicians and, indeed, all performers could have learned something from this dapper gent in the double-breasted suit and sporting a fedora.

Cohen has had his share of well-reported financial woes in recent years, but this show was nothing about mailing it in and picking up the bucks to pay the bills and build up the nest-egg again. The show was masterfully conceived and executed. The man was elegant and gracious, but, most important of all, he was able to evoke the power of words in an age when words are getting increasingly short shrift.

But while the poet illuminated the stage, so did the troubadour. Cohen's voice never sounded sharper and more passionate. He did virtually all the Cohen songbook, and he never faltered.

Unlike some of the planet's great poet-troubadours - hello Bob Dylan - Cohen communicates with his audience. He has an endearing self-deprecatory touch: "I was born with the gift of a golden voice" or "I studied religions and philosophies, but cheerfulness kept breaking through." And how 'bout this confession from the ladies' man: "I ache in places where I used to play." But as he went on to add: "I'm still crazy about love." That love obviously works both ways.

Jazz-fest boss Ménard was blown away: "This is by far the best show we've ever done at the festival. It's as close to perfection as any show I've ever seen. It will stand up forever. It will also be a tough act to follow, so good luck to the other performers."

This adulation is not unique to Montreal. Cohen's manager Robert Kory reports that it's been a love-in wherever Cohen has played in this tour, which kicked off May 11 in Fredericton. "There is no question that he has been rejuvenated," Kory says. "There's something to be said for his living a wholesome existence in a mountain retreat in California all these years."

Cohen has fans on every corner of the planet. And he goes to places most acts avoid. He played to two sell-crowds in Glace Bay, N.S. And he will play to a sellout crowd of 20,000 in Oslo.

Montreal impresario Rubin Fogel co-promoted 17 of Cohen's shows, in Atlantic Canada as well as in Chicoutimi and Kitchener. Fogel, like Ménard, has seen some of the greatest acts on the planet, but he, too, has never felt like this before. "Without a doubt, it's the most incredible experience in music I've ever had. Every show he did began with standing ovations, followed by smiles, tears and more standing ovations. I've never seen a performer touch so many diverse audiences like he does. He seeks perfection and achieves it. He also happens to be one of the most incredible humans I've ever met. That's what it's all about."

Fogel recounts an incident in Kitchener earlier this month. He saw Cohen carrying a plastic bag. "He was heading off to a laundromat with his keyboard player and back-up singers," Fogel recalls. "He wouldn't ever ask someone else to do his laundry, yet he probably would have done all the band's laundry if they had asked.Unlike almost every star, he stays in the same places as his band, he eats what they eat, he travels the same way. He gives himself no preferential treatment. He's truly a mensch."

Buzz on the street is that this mensch might return to town for more gigs when the tour moves back on this side of the pond. If so, bookers might consider a bigger room. St. Joseph's Oratory?

-Bill Brownstein

Tribute to Leonard Cohen

Montreal June 26, 2008

  • Chris Botti: Hallelujah from a nearby roof, then projection of Leonard singing it on giant screens
  • Zachary Richard: Bird On A Wire
  • Buffy Sainte-Marie: The Partisan
  • Steven Page: A Singer Must Die
  • Adam Cohen: Take This Waltz
  • Adam Cohen with Serena Ryder: Hey, That's No Way To Say Goodbye
  • Serena Ryder: Sisters Of Mercy
  • Madeleine Peyroux: Dance Me To The End Of Love
  • Katie Melua: In My Secret Life
  • Lhasa de Sela with Thomas Hellman: So Long, Marianne
  • Lhasa de Sela: Who By Fire
  • Steven Page with Joe Lovano on the saxophone: Memories
  • Chris Botti (trumpet): A Thousand Kisses Deep with the words projected on the back of the stage
  • Garou: Everybody Knows
  • Michel Pagliaro: The Future
  • Leonard on the screen singing Closing Time
  • Artists come on stage for farewell with Adam Cohen center stage
  • Leonard Cohen received The Montreal International Jazz Festival's third Spirit Award . Head of the Festival, Andre Menard, comes on stage to present award to Adam Cohen as a representative of his father.
  • Leonard on screen singing Suzanne

  • Review © 2008 Bill Brownstein & The Montreal Gazette
    Photos © 2008 Allan LaCroix. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
    Any other use forbidden without written permission from the authors.
    Tribute concert information from The Leonard Cohen Forum/Darling & Linda Straub

    More audience reports here on our Forum
    Marie's media report at Speaking Cohen website