You could hear at least four different languages spoken at the Bass Concert Hall in Austin on Wednesday night, which is unusual for Texas. So is an appearance from Leonard Cohen, though, and the 78-year-old singer’s two-night stand were his only dates within 900 miles, so fans who wanted the chance to catch what even Cohen himself acknowledged at the start of the show may be his final tour (“I hope that sometime we meet again,” he said, “But if not, I promise that we’re going to give you everything we’ve got tonight.”) had to make the trip.
They had to, because this was a special performance. The set, which included a 20-minute intermission and ran for three and a half hours, was vital and full of energy. Cohen sprinted to the mic at the beginning of the evening, and skipped offstage at the end, and in between, delivered a reminder of everything that has made him the icon and legend that he is. From the easy swag of a man born five years before Hitler invaded Poland (he was impeccably dapper in his charcoal suit and matching fedora) to the voice that sounds unchanged in its imperfection since it became weighted with gravel on 1984’s Various Positions, Cohen delivered on the promise that he made at the start of the set.
But really, what would you expect? Leonard Cohen is unique among the remaining icons of the ‘60s. Like Dylan and Neil Young, he can fill a room the size of Bass, or Madison Square Garden, or the Barclays Center (where he’ll conclude this tour in December), but he’s different from them in fundamental ways, and those are reflected in both his stage show and the way he’s managed his career. He’s seven years older than Dylan, eleven older than Young, and his music career started late (his debut, Songs Of Leonard Cohen, was released when he was 33). This is significant, because no part of Cohen’s persona is rooted in him as the upstart young rebel. Which makes watching him onstage as an old man feel comfortable in ways that watching, say, Mick Jagger, isn’t; Cohen has been a grand wise man of rock and roll at least since he peeled the banana on the cover of 1987’s I’m Your Man, so there’s no cognitive dissonance -- or just plain sadness -- in seeing him so aged. If anything, it’s just added another layer to his work.
On Wednesday night, when Cohen sang “Give me Christ or give me Hiroshima” during “The Future,” it was a command from someone who remembers the latter; a line like “Take one last look at this sacred heart/ Before it goes” from the mid-set highpoint “Everybody Knows” carries some obvious weight from a man who’s nearly 80; during “Famous Blue Raincoat,” which he sang as part of the encore, the pause between the lines “that night that you planned to go clear” and “did you ever go clear?” contained a gravity that’s not present in the 1971 recording – it’s like he’s been waiting 40 years to ask that question now. It’s hard not to imagine that Cohen, who began his career as a poet, and occasionally spoke bits of poetry in throughout his set, isn’t keenly aware of the power of his words to change with that context, and something he delights in.
Because one thing is for certain: something delights Cohen about playing music still, and that’s the key to what makes this tour so essential. The Leonard Cohen model is what we want from most of our aging legends, really – his discography (12 albums in 45 years) contains no slips into irrelevance or self-imitation, and his career is free of blatant cash-grabs. Even the titles he’s chosen for his most recent albums reflect the fact that he’s aware that he’s adding to a substantial body of work -- you don’t call new records Ten New Songs or Old Ideas unless you’re wryly aware of your legacy.
It’s not fair to expect that every other artist will engage his or her senior years with the same grace, flair, and elegance that Leonard Cohen has (in truth, those are attributes that he possessed in uncommon abundance even in his youth), but the fact that he is still here, still performing, still offering up three and a half hours of music a night, and still fundamentally in possession of everything that made him important in the first place makes the Old Ideas tour absolutely essential.
Leonard Cohen plays Austin again tonight, November 1. Check out the rest of his tour dates here.