Leonard Cohen at Manchester Opera House review by Kitty Empire, The Observer, 22nd June 2008.

Singing all the way to the bank

The fans topped up Leonard Cohen’s pension fund and were repaid with an evening of pure gold

Leonard Cohen

Manchester Opera House

Having spent five years in a Zen Buddhist monastery, Leonard Cohen should be well versed in the Buddhist teaching of non-attachment. Tonight, on the first of a four-night run at Manchester’s Opera House, the elder statesman of song certainly carries himself with the sort of grace that a spell away from the rat race often bestows. He beams with pleasure at the repeated ovations and cracks jokes when you least expect him to. One minute he is the Dalai Lama of Dour. The next he’s listing half-a-dozen pharmaceuticals he’s taken since his last live outing in 1993, when he was ‘just a 60-year-old kid with a crazy dream’.

And yet this 73-year-old’s world tour – probably, let’s face it, his last – is motivated by that most profane of rewards: lucre. While he was up the mountain, Cohen’s longtime associate gnawed a gaping multi-million dollar hole in Cohen’s retirement fund, one that court action has so far been unable to rectify. So Cohen, in his own words, is ‘back on Boogie Street’, singing for his nest egg. It is awful to say it, but his loss is our gain. ‘It’s kind of you to come out on a school night,’ he quips. He apologises for the ‘financial and geographical inconvenience’ and adds: ‘But I didn’t establish the market.’ He’s alluding to the diva-level ticket prices, but, playing 24 songs over three hours, the man from Montreal is easily worth a dozen Barbra Streisands, with a few Madonnas left over.

This frail, dapper gent standing on a Manchester stage in 2008 was never going to be the monochrome folk singer of the Sixties and early Seventies, all cut up about his famous blue raincoat. Since the Eighties, Cohen’s arrangements have become more and more synthesised and his most recent albums positively jazzy. Tonight, all suited and hatted, his able band – bassist Roscoe Beck, organist Neil Larsen, longtime collaborator Sharon Robinson, singers Charley and Hattie Webb, guitarist Bob Metzger, drummer Rafael Gayol, Javier Mas on an assortment of stringed things, saxophonist and woodwinder Dino Soldo – look like they are playing a supper jazz gig in deepest Sicily. The superb Mas, in particular, plays a succession of smaller and smaller 12-stringed mandolins called the laud, the archilaud and the bandurria, giving many songs a Hispanic gypsy air.

But not even the unwelcome tootling of Soldo can detract from the power of the songs themselves. ‘Bird on a Wire’ survives the unctuous solos, while latterday songs like ‘The Future’, with its gospelly vocal interplays, or the superb ‘Everybody Knows’, are made glorious by the lushness of the band. Those longing for the literate loser with the guitar – Jarvis Cocker perhaps? He is in attendance – do get a small window into the past. ‘Suzanne’ is untouched, with Cohen gently plucking at a black – what else? – guitar. Backed only by three singers and his splendid organist Neil Larsen, Cohen begins his second set with ‘Tower of Song’, where he accompanies himself on the keyboard, getting whoops of applause for his one-fingered solo. He plays to the natural gags. ‘I was born with the gift of a golden voice,’ Cohen growls, even more sepulchrally than ever before, to the delight of the audience.

Although he made his songwriting name in the Sixties as the hymner of desolation, Cohen can ham it up just as well as he can wallow. He does a little ‘white man’ dance when the lyrics require it on ‘The Future’ and, after ending his encore with ‘Closing Time’, returns a few second later with ‘I Tried to Leave You’.

All this twinkling does not detract from four decades of gravitas, however. ‘Hallelujah’ is his best-known song, covered by everyone from Jeff Buckley to a recent American Idol hopeful called Jason Castro. Tonight, he invests it with particular intensity, knocking his knees together, crouching down and squeezing his eyes shut in supplication. ‘Who by Fire’ started out as an Old Testament prayer and retains a spooky prehistoric resonance.

If this is a farewell tour in all but name, Cohen, the baggy-trousered sage descended from the mountain, has a few points to make. His political songs – ‘The Future’, ‘Democracy’, ‘Everybody Knows’ – are delivered with particular relish.

At the end of the first set, Cohen recounts wryly how he has spent the years studying the religions of the world, ‘but cheerfulness kept breaking through’. The next song is ‘Anthem’, which he begins as a recital, as befits this fallen poet. It is mesmerising. The T-shirts in the foyer bear a quote from it, which goes: ‘Forget your perfect offering/ There is a crack in everything/ That’s how the light gets in.’

If he never passes this way again, Cohen’s last teachings on human imperfection will echo for some time to come.

ยท Leonard Cohen plays Glastonbury 29 June, Edinburgh Castle 16 July, London’s O2 Centre 17 July and the Big Chill 3 August.

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