Leonard Cohen, 78, jogged onto the stage of Nokia Theatre like he'd run in from the parking lot. The singer-poet, wearing a hand-tailored suit, a bolo tie strung around a cleanly pressed shirt and a black fedora, stood before the microphone to begin with “Dance Me to the End of Love” at precisely 8 p.m.
Surrounding him was a six-piece band that included not only bass, percussion and keyboards, but a three-man string army that offered texture via a combination of violin, mandolin, bandurria, 12-string guitar and hollow body guitar. Three female vocalists lifted his voice, and his spirit, throughout the night on the eve of the election.
Many of us were just arriving as Cohen offered his initial come-on. “Let me see your beauty when the witnesses are gone,” he sang during “Dance Me,” as if he were sitting across a candle-lighted table. “Let me feel you moving like they do in Babylon / Show me slowly what I only know the limits of / Dance me to the end of love.”
Even pushing fourscore years, Cohen remains a king of seduction — albeit one willing to lyrically describe himself at various points as “a lazy bastard living in a suit” and naked and filthy with sweat upon his brow. He's “as stubborn as those garbage bags that time cannot decay — I'm junk, but I'm still holding up this wild little bouquet.” His ice-dry wit is part of his charm, as he conveyed throughout the show.
When the opener concluded, Cohen greeted a crowd still settling in: “I'm sorry, folks, that we started on time.” Then the singer, whose face shows every one of those 78 years while the spring in his step suggests a giddy adolescent, stated his intention, wrapped in bittersweet language: “If we do not meet again, I promise you that tonight we will give you everything we've got.”
Cohen more than fulfilled his promise, and if Monday night's allusion to not meeting again was some sort of farewell to Los Angeles, it was a memorable one. He danced and swayed during “In My Secret Life.” He got down on his knees for “Bird on a Wire,” genuflecting to his musicians as they soloed, removing his hat as though standing before royalty.
Much of Cohen's approach is familiar to anyone who has seen him. He's ever gracious and exudes calm joy. Unlike fellow songwriting laureates Bob Dylan and Neil Young, both of whom also gigged L.A. in the past month, with Cohen fans got what they expected: the artist's best work through the decades, arranged in ways that are fresh without being reinventions or high-volume interpretations.
Cohen's generosity was real — nearly 30 songs worth — and it confirmed his place as one of the most accomplished songwriters of the past four decades.
Despite Cohen's magnetism, I could have watched his longtime band even without its leader. Bandurria player Javier Mas moved from instrument to instrument with fluidity. Violinist Alexandru Bublitchi managed to touch on sounds that at times suggested Appalachian stomps, Eastern European dance tunes, Latin balladry and Yiddish folk songs. Guitarist Mitch Watkins weaved pleasant lines throughout. Hammond B-3 king Neil Larson floated out elegant solos, and bandleader-bassist Roscoe Beck held steady with percussionist Rafael Gayol.
A Zen romantic who at turns spoke of love in ways both lusty and mystical, Cohen guided this band through a set that also included such classics as “Suzanne,” “The Future,” “Hallelujah,” “Come Healing,” “So Long, Marianne,” “Famous Blue Raincoat” and “First, We Take Manhattan.”
His renditions contained multitudes both lyrical and musical. This depth was evident in the elegant back and forth on “Waiting for the Miracle” between the singer and his female Greek chorus (led by longtime collaborator Sharon Robinson, with sisters Charley and Hattie Webb). For the sparse version of “Tower of Song,” which he played as the first number of his second set, Cohen stood before his keyboard, singers to his side, crooning words that described an aging man: “Well my friends are gone and my hair is gray / I ache in the places where I used to play.”
The Canadian-born songwriter delivered “Democracy,” and the crowd cheered when the refrain — “Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.” — came around.
On the song, taken from his underrated 1992 album, “The Future,” Cohen celebrated (with typical wariness) America with lines seemingly crafted about election day. As his band kicked into speed, the artist examined the country's political life while offering a glimpse into his own beliefs:
I'm sentimental, if you know what I mean
I love the country but I can't stand the scene.
And I'm neither left or right
I'm just staying home tonight,
Getting lost in that hopeless little screen.
It'd be easy to keep quoting lines. By turns witty, cynical, meditative, resolved, glum and euphoric, Cohen's songs may be part of a run of dates he's dubbed “The Old Ideas Tour,” but on Monday he confirmed them to be as durable as the ages. The same might be said of the artist himself: When Cohen was finished, the old man skipped off the stage like a schoolboy in love.
Follow Randall Roberts on Twitter: @liledit