Leonard Cohen at Madison Square Garden: The master at 75

Last night, about a month after his 75th birthday, Leonard Cohen packed NYC’s Madison Square Garden to the rafters. Earlier in the week, he’d released Live at the Isle of Wight 1970, a CD/DVD package documenting a festival set he played when he was just shy of 36. And here’s the thing: Ask me which of the two performances was more compelling, more full of life, more can’t-look-away transcendent, and…I’ll have to get back to you on that.

Sure, Cohen had a certain bright-burning intensity 39 years ago. He waited til after 2 A.M. to go on stage in 1970, which I imagine he wouldn’t be as happy to do today. His voice could hit a few more high notes back then. But that’s about all the obvious advantage that young Cohen has over old Cohen.

“I don’t know when we’ll be passing through here again,” he told the Madison Square Garden crowd early in last night’s set. “So I want to tell you that it is our intention to give you everything we’ve got tonight.” Leonard Cohen does not make empty promises. Backed by a tight folk-rock-jazz band of mostly gray-haired virtuosos, plus three otherworldly backup singers (including frequent collaborator Sharon Robinson), he played for nearly three hours. Cohen (pictured above at another recent show) hit the major peaks in his catalog along the way: “Suzanne,” “So Long, Marianne,” “Bird on the Wire,” “Famous Blue Raincoat,” “Chelsea Hotel #2,” “Hallelujah” (earning a standing ovation), “I’m Your Man,” “First We Take Manhattan” (of course), “Everybody Knows,” “The Future,” “Anthem,” to name just a few utter classics.

His voice today — deeper, wiser, more gravelly even than in his deep, wise, gravelly youth — imparts something to those songs that they were always meant to have, as several critics have noted in recent months. Cohen himself cuts a dashing figure as he kneels, bows, and dances lightly on and off the stage in his sharp suit and hat. He remains every bit the winking showman, laughing drily mid-song at his own lascivious punchlines. Most of all, Leonard Cohen is grateful to be performing arena concerts in 2009. He told us as much, thanking us during one of several encores “for keeping my songs alive all these years.” He’s the one who deserves our thanks, of course.

Have you seen Leonard Cohen in concert recently? Were you there at the Garden last night? Share your thoughts on his remarkable return to concert touring in the comments below.

More from EW’s Music Mix:
Coachella ’09 Friday: Leonard Cohen, Paul McCartney, Morrissey
The Swell Season’s Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová on their breakup, their new album, and their future
Kris Allen: We exclusively reveal the track listing for his self-titled debut!
Paloma Faith: Don’t cry “Amy Winehouse rip-off!” just because she’s awesome

Photo credit: Tomas Hudcovic/isifa/Getty Images

Comments (46 total) Add your comment
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  • David

    I was at the garden last night for my first LC show…It was nothing short of magnificent. The band is sooo tight, and so talented, the back-up singers are incredible, and LC is simply BADASS!

  • Me

    Leonard Cohen is almost iconic here in Canada. While I’ve never been a huge fan of his singing voice, he is a fantastic lyricist and songwriter, and desevers many of the accolades he’s received. His songs have been covered by many (although even he admits he’s tired of hearing “Hallelujah” everywhere). I’m glad that EW can give such a talent their kudos, and it’s a shame that many of today’s songwriters don’t follow his example.

  • Mildred

    I was at the concert last night. LC and his music were moving and spellbinding,as usual. Age has only improved his delivery. He has the depth and understanding of a prophet. His is a true spirituality.

  • Jenny

    He’s playing near me this week. So bummed that I am unable to attend.

  • Adam

    Took my father to the concert at MSG last night for his birthday and it was just so phenomenal. Worth every penny.

  • rls

    I saw him in Hamilton, Ontario a few months ago – my first Cohen show. He’s riveting and a treasure. The beauty of his words (and gorgeous melodies) are that much more powerful when you experience them live and in person. I am so glad I can say I’ve seen Leonard Cohen in concert.

  • adam

    I was at the show tonight and, while it couldn’t match the Beacon Theater show I saw earlier in the year (one of the best shows I have ever seen) he was amazing. Just a little comment. Even with an intermission, he played for more tha 3 hours, not less. Of course a whole bunch of foolish fans apparently have never been to a show before so left before the first encore.

    • mwo

      I agree it was no where as good as the beacon show, and at the end the musicians seemed to try to get everyone to clap rhythm to wear out the crowd probably because people wanted more and leonard was getting tired.

  • Tom Bruce

    I’m a big Leonard Cohen fan; have most of his CDs. During my 40 year career as a DJ, I played a lot of LC, and received a lot of favorable comment from those who were hearing him for the first time. I really wanted to go to the Garden last night, but at $250 a ticket, just couldn’t justify it. I’ll just have to settle for his spectacular CDs.

    • mwo

      I got seats at 80 bucks, not great but the music was

  • sheila b.

    I saw Cohen in 1969, 1990, and two nights ago in Philly. The enchantment factoor is an ascending ting. Part of the radiance now is his sheer, open joy in performing and being received with heartfelt love by his audience.

    • sherri

      you hit it perfectly. There was an exchange of appreciation and love–each time he knelt and each time he bowed, his gestures were full of generosity. He was radiant and the show was brilliant!
      I saw him at MSG. I found myself surprised that I was just so happy to be able to be there to clap– to thank him and appreciate him and his offering.
      I found myself wanting to give back to him rather than just receive. Very strange.

  • Liljana

    I was there last night and I was at the radio city music hall several months ago. It only gets better. He is an incredibly powerful artist. They indeed gave us everything they had last night.

  • Karen Clark

    His reading of 1000 Kisses Deep was mind-bending and just swept me away. I first heard LC when living in Europe in the early 90′s. He was/is very famous there and I became intrigued and converted myself after listening to his songs (at cafe’s in the piazza). This was my first show and I travelled to NYC from MA, well worth it though I wish he had performed Hey That’s No Way to Say Goodbye.

  • Udi

    Number one. unforgettable show

  • Ken Weinstein

    I saw Leonard Cohen at the Garden last night, came in from Philly, and was reduced to tears of joy throughout this amazing show. What a great poet and musician, poignant, deep, rich and sexy. I loved every moment from my cozy perch near the rafters. Wow!

  • Ruth

    I was there last night and he was incredible. His voice to my ear is better when he was younger, deeper with greater depth of feeling. Extra ordinary evening.

  • udi

    leonard cohen is number one. unforgettable show

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