Leonard Cohen – Live at the O2 Arena – Review

Leonard Cohen sings Hallelujah

Warning: The following Leonard Cohen In Concert review may contain lazy, clichéd references to attributes associated with Leonard Cohen which may upset some more sensitive fans of Cohen including words and phrases such as:

  • a) Depressing
  • b) Old age pensioner

(Spoiler: keep reading – it all turns out okay in the end).

I was very curious to see Leonard Cohen at the O2 Arena last night, but it was with something of a heavy heart that I made the trip to the O2 Arena, in the same way a teenager might shuffle his way to school on the morning of double maths followed by a tricky French vocabulary test. I pictured lots of chin-scratching and appreciative nods from the cognoscenti as Cohen threw off some clever bon mots.

I thought listening to an alleged three hours of this stuff might be somewhat akin to ploughing through (in a single evening) one of Dostoyevsky‘s less humorous books where he rather plunders the human soul, people take long hard looks at themselves, and them everyone dies at the end. I also wondered if I might see people chuckle to themselves at certain times having noticed a particular nuance of a song which might never have occurred to them before when listening to their original vinyl records (which they still keep in alphabetical order), a clever phrase that I would miss myself as my thoughts drifted off towards the bar. Perhaps, I thought, I ought to even throw in a fake chuckle myself, as if to show that I had appreciated a particular clever aphorism that others had missed. You can’t let these musical intellectuals have it all their own way you know…

In summary, I thought it unlikely I would ever witness a more depressing sight without catching Eeyore at a Depeche Mode gig, or perhaps, to take a similar literary example, the look on Achilles’ face as a stray arrow bounced off someone else’s helmet and snicked the back of his heel…

To steel myself and prepare for the worst, I made a list of things I did not expect to see at a Leonard Cohen concert:

  1. People smiling.
  2. People dancing
  3. Anyone younger than me, unless they had been invited by someone else in the belief that “liking that X-Factor singer’s version of Hallelujah” might qualify them as a possible convert to Cohen’s work.

And things that I did expect to see:

  1. Canapés
  2. Sad, thoughtful faces
  3. People dozing off.

I was wrong on every count, although it was too dark to see if people were sad and thoughtful. I also listened to an “Essential” collection in preparation. I might as well have waded waist-deep through a particularly morose dish of treacle.

The reason for these preconceptions, as regular readers will know, is that the previous record holder of the title of “Most elderly Jewish gentleman I have seen live in concert” is Gene Simmons of Kiss, who is (I believe) six months younger than Leonard Cohen.* To give him his due however, Cohen, at 78 years young looks much leaner (think how Simmons looked on the cover of the first Alive album cover, only with less make up), and has a slightly shorter (but perhaps more acerbic) tongue.

Leonard Cohen at the O2 Arena 2

It is fair to say that Cohen’s music has yet to win a prize for “Most cheerful song of the year”. He is better known as the Governor of Glum, the Mandarin of Misery, the Herod of Half-empty, and the Sheriff of Slightly-Gloomy.

But in the event, seeing Leonard Cohen in concert is a rather more cheerful affair, even when seated a football pitch away. (My seats were so far back I could see the drummer playing before I heard the beat).

Sporting a hat, cane, three female backing singers and an ace Spanish-tinged band (double bass, fiddle and some beautiful guitars) Cohen opened with “Dance Me to the End of Love” which he sang on his knees (and not because he a) couldn’t get up or b) he’d dropped the lyric sheet on the floor). He’s pretty sprightly – if I am able to get down on my knees and back up again at his age I’ll be pretty happy.

Said Cohen, “The tour is winding down and I don’t know when we’ll meet again but tonight we’ll give everything we’ve got”. By the time he launched into “Bird on a Wire” it was clear he was here to play the hits.

During the intro to “Ain’t No Cure For Love” we also got to realise just how smooth this guy is. No wonder women melted at his feet if he can be this charming at 78 years of age. You could have heard a pin drop during “A Thousand Kisses Deep”.

After the first part of the show, Cohen paused for an interval, wryly thanking everyone on his return for not leaving. “Imagine if you all left…it’d be so demoralising. I’m already depressed as it is…”

“Suzanne” and “Sisters of Mercy” began the second half of the show. That’s the way to grab people’s attention. In the packed three hours plus other highlights included the witty “Everybody Knows” and “I’m Your Man”. Cohen also sang a wonderful “Hallelujah” – just one of many moments the crowd could reflect upon and say “I was there”. How do you follow that? Well, if ever a record told a story it’s “So Long Marianne”. This revamped version had the crowd swaying in the aisles. (“We’ll take Manhattan” was the closest anyone got to dancing). A version of “Save The Last Dance For Me” rounded off a very mellow and enjoyable evening.

Even at a ripe old age, Cohen still has bags of charisma, a mature deep voice and has written some truly great songs. In a live setting these songs escape from the time capsule of the records they rest in, and come to life. Cohen has recorded twelve albums over the years, and that’s a lot of potential gloom to sift through for the uninitiated. However, last night’s set served as an upbeat and truly great career retrospective of one of the great singer songwriters of our time.

Record #206: Leonard Cohen – So Long Marianne


* I think this is true, but, if you have an A level exam in popular music coming up you might want to double-check in Wikipedia or some other (similarly trustworthy) source. 


6 responses to “Leonard Cohen – Live at the O2 Arena – Review”

  1. jjmgaunt Avatar

    I wish I had known you were going. I was there (in nose-bleed territory too) and would have liked to have met you. I thought it was a magnificent performance,. I cannot think of a more intelligent songwriter and the band was exquisite. It might also have been because on Monday in a similar seat I watched Neil Young paying no attention whatsoever to what his audience might want or how the felt. But I thought Cohen’s whole approach was so humble and warm. I am just elated today.


    1. Every Record Tells A Story Avatar

      That’s a really nice summing up of the gig. He was indeed very warm with the audience. All old school charm.
      I was going to the Neil Young gig also but for one reason and another had other commitments and had to give it up. But then it was never Young’s style to pander to the audience. That’s why he’s a legend, perhaps. I like being pandered to though – I’m still worried if I go to see Dylan he’ll have the same attitude.


  2. Leonard Cohen Live – A Thousand Kisses Deep | euzicasa Avatar

    […] Leonard Cohen – Live at the O2 Arena – Review (everyrecordtellsastory.com) […]


  3. Phillip Helbig Avatar

    I first heard his first album 30 years ago. What is amazing/depressing is that almost twice as much time has passed since then than the time from his first album until I heard said album (which was just a couple of years before Various Positions where I saw him on tour when he was 50). (Jethro Tull’s Rock Island was during the first half of Tull’s career. Makes me feel old.)

    I’ve heard a few things since then, but for me the first album is really, really good while the latter stuff, with a few exceptions, is just OK.

    I’ve also read some of his books. Not bad. Neil Peart also writes books. What is it about these Canadian musos?


    1. Every Record Tells A Story Avatar

      True. I hear Celine Dion’s novel is wonderful too. 😉
      Time certainly does fly doesn’t it?


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