It’s entirely possible to get a snapshot of an entire career in performance and songwriting just from hearing a few soundtrack songs and well-placed covers—but not in the case of the measured spectacle that is Leonard Cohen. At Philadelphia’s Academy of Music, normally a golden, velvety home for orchestras and operas, the man took the opportunity to calmly open a chasm between mere regard for his legacy and wonderment at its thorough exploration.
Seeing Cohen in this increasingly rare circumstance, in the middle of his first American tour dates in 15 years, was to watch him take casual and even committed listeners’ perception of hipness and substitute it with his own. Knowing his songs, or even just the high points therein—heartbreaking “Hallelujah,” rebellious “First We Take Manhattan,” snide “Everybody Knows” and “The Future,” and all of their respective TV and movie insertions—still left the Philly crowd woefully unprepared for Cohen’s kind of stage magic.
From the opening of “Dance Me to the End of Love,” Cohen and his sharp-dressed band used the underappreciated musical quality of restraint to not just underline their monster talent but create drama and revelation. His backup singers (sisters Hattie and Charlie Webb with Cohen’s occasional writing partner Sharon Robinson), drummer Raphael Bernardo, and keyboard man Neil Larsen helped draw “In My Secret Life” to an aching close; Bernardo’s skillful brushing kept in line a chugging rendition of “Everybody Knows;” “So Long, Marianne” and “Boogie Street” received makeovers using country harmonica and jazz phrasing, respectively.
Theatrics were limited to Cohen’s skipping offstage, a few reverential bows toward his acoustic guitarist, hat-tips aplenty to the crowd and the rest of his crew and one endearing coordinated cartwheel by the Webbs. The show’s lone rockstar moments were deserved ones: the politically charged “Democracy” ending his main set, and a flashing-lights encore of “First We Take Manhattan” as fans clapped in time with its instrumental bridges, apparently attempting to leave Cohen’s words unsullied. It’s a testament to Cohen’s catalog that many songs perfect for similar climaxes and codas, including his de facto theme song “I’m Your Man,” showed up in the guts of his three-hour set.
Most other scene-setting was left to the mind’s eye, courtesy of apocalyptic futures, blue-raincoat-wearing flames of the past, pleas to higher powers, star vocal turns by the Webbs and Robinson, even the coolly erotic poem “A Thousand Kisses Deep.” Cohen’s gaunt frame may suggest dry, cracking wood, his voice broken down from the nasal baritone of his (relative) youth, yet his is a kindling that burns with intensity, and his throat’s stones have been polished by time and loving craft. He is nothing if not focused on preserving his art and presenting it as entertainment. Far less intrusive than the many musicians who have ever felt gifted and/or moved enough to attempt acting, on this night Leonard Cohen reiterated his place in the world as an author instead, constantly building and rebuilding his own tower of song.