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Review: Cohen still a musical, lyrical force

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First he takes a Juno. Then he takes the ’Peg.

Leonard Cohen may be at the top of the Canadian musical mountain, but he still knows his place in the universe.

The 78-year-old Montrealer kneeled on his prayer bones at the MTS Centre Friday night, pleading for redemption from a higher power and begging for forgiveness from an adoring crowd.

He was supposed to perform here on March 11, but the flu swept its way through his exceptional band, so the gig was rescheduled until Friday night.

The wait was worth it.

Cohen is just six days removed from winning the Junos’ artist of the year award at its gala Saturday in Regina. He showed why he was such a deserving choice during the first of two sets Friday night.

During his first set, he blended his treasure trove of classics, such as the opener, Dance Me to the End of Love, a country-blues version of Bird on a Wire and a sweet rendition of Ain’t No Cure for Love with three new songs from his critically acclaimed 2012 recording Old Ideas, which has slices of his recent wit and wisdom.

One of them, Amen, had Cohen back on his knees, left hand clenched by his cheek, seeking the unattainable love that is so close, yet so far away.

During the second set, another new one, Show Me the Place, proved to be another song to add to Cohen’s famous ones. Cohen’s voice, already known as one of the deepest in contemporary music, almost reached Paul Robeson territory when he pleaded, "Show me the place, where you want your slave… to go."

The soulful skeleton of Cohen’s show remains similar to the sumptuous Live in London album/DVD of 2009, which re-introduced his classics to a new generation of listeners. But those heart-rending bits of Canadiana were instead performed with a western style that matched the bolo tie Cohen was wearing.

And a fiddle, superbly played by Alexandru Bublitchi, replaced the usual instruments of wind during early solos, adding a different mood compared with Cohen’s famous live recording.

Later, Spanish guitar wizard Javier Mas brought the show back to Europe prior to Who by Fire, and his deft touch earned four separate bursts of applause from Cohen’s polite fans.

Cohen was also accompanied once again by singers Sharon Robinson and the Webb sisters, Hattie and Charley. They fit so well together, it’s hard to imagine Cohen without a trio of right-hand women by his side.

The sardonic Tower of Song kicked off the second set to plenty of giggles before another one of Cohen’s titans, Suzanne, hushed the audience. For three or so minutes, they were transported to an earlier time, as the great songs so often do. The same effect would happen at the beginning of a lengthy encore, when So Long, Marianne took the MTS Centre back to the Mediterranean, 1960, even if it was just for a moment or two.

Hallelujah came near the end of the second set, and it continues to be a fan favourite, despite its overuse by Hollywood. The song can pack an emotional wallop, and Cohen squeezed every bit of feeling out of it, and his gestures earned one of the biggest cheers of the evening.

Mortality is never far from the topic of conversation for rockers in their 70s, and the subject came up near the end of Friday’s concert. Cohen acknowledged the recent passing of Stompin’ Tom Connors and Rita MacNeil before playing Choices, a song from American country legend George Jones, whose death was announced earlier Friday.

Cohen joked early on that he hoped this latest series of shows wouldn’t be known as a farewell tour, and after seeing him perform Friday night, it would be a shame if it were.

alan.small@freepress.mb.ca

Leonard Cohen and his band play the MTS Centre Friday night.

History

Updated on Saturday, April 27, 2013 at 12:01 AM CDT: write-thru with full concert review

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