I'm Your Fan: An evening with Leonard Cohen

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At 74, Leonard Norman Cohen, formerly of Montreal, was a lot spryer than he had a right to be as he sprinted to the stage of Philadelphia's Academy of Music on Tuesday night.

For the nearly three hours he was on stage, Leonard Cohen cut an impossibly elegant figure in his dark pin-striped suit and fedora. He didn't wear a tie, but that was about as loose as it got during two meticulous sets separated by an intermission.

Doffing his hat and bowing deeply to acknowledge the standing ovation he earned simply for showing up with his six musicians and three backup singers, he looked like a man capable of promising a miracle and delivering it. Throughout the night, the creases around his mouth gave way to smiles and an impishness not characteristic of his music.

As the proud owner of a $179 ticket purchased at the box office shortly before the show sold out, my flirtation with buyer's remorse vanished as soon as Leonard Cohen and his ensemble launched into a note-perfect rendition of "Dance Me To The End of Love."

Though just as esteemed, if not as prolific, a songwriter as Bob Dylan, his legendary cohort in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Mr. Cohen operates on a much higher level when it comes to fulfilling audience expectations. On any given night, Dylan is notorious for fluctuating wildly between poles of indifference and utter brilliance.

Because Mr. Cohen tours less frequently -- this is his first world tour in 15 years -- he is far more conscientious about what happens on stage, down to the scripted monologue and instrumental solos by his peerless backup musicians. His deep, sometime craggy baritone may sound like something echoing through a crypt, but he always manages to hit the low notes, even if they're buried in a grave.

Having dished out nearly $200 between a ticket and a modest dinner in Center City, no one was more relieved than I was that Leonard Cohen had not come to Philadelphia to "do a Dylan."

As much as I love Bob Dylan, I haven't been to one of his shows in years. I shudder to think what I would have missed had I not driven the length of the Pennsylvania Turnpike to catch Leonard Cohen a few days ago. If it wasn't the best concert I've ever seen, it is definitely in the top three.

In retrospect, it seems crass to have ever doubted it would be. It would have been worth twice what I paid.

At the box office window, an elderly, well-dressed woman with blond hair tapped me on the shoulder after hearing my complaints about the cost of tickets. "The Leonard Cohen fan club is meeting downstairs," she said, assuring me that I was welcome to rub shoulders with members of the band if I wanted to.

Flashing my reporter's pad, I thanked her for the tip and followed her past ushers checking for credentials to the meet-and-greet. Thanks to my unexpected patron, no one questioned my presence. After formally introducing myself on the way, she returned the favor. "I'm Leonard's sister, Esther," she said with a smile.

I was startled and delighted. She politely ignored my request for a few quotes. Thirty minutes before her brother's triumphant return to the stage in Philadelphia, she had better things to do than deal with boring variations on questions she's been asked for decades.

Michelle Grimaldi, a former wardrobe assistant now responsible for getting the band on stage on time spared me the embarrassment of walking up to world-class musicians and asking who they were. She introduced me to drummer and percussionist Rafael Bernardo Gayol, the band's musical director and bassist Roscoe Beck and wind instrumentalist and keyboard player Dino Soldo.

While I discreetly scanned the room for Sharon Robinson, Leonard Cohen's co-writer, collaborator and chief backup singer of recent years, Dino Soldo explained the band's creative process.

"I let Leonard sell the songs," Mr. Soldo said of their intricate dance on stage. "I bring whatever I think the songs need," he said, contradicting my assumption that there is very little room for improvisation in such a tightly choreographed show. "What I do is 80 percent improvisation," he said. "Javier Mas [the band's 12-string guitarist and banduria player] is mostly improv. Sure, the skeleton remains the same, but the context changes every night."

After posing for group pictures with fans, Ms. Grimaldi corralled the musicians. No chance of a meeting with Leonard Cohen himself, she said.

I had to ask. I had been lucky so far.

I already had the best seats in the house by the time Terry Gross, the host of National Public Radio's "Fresh Air," sat down three seats down the row. Trim and elegant, she was wearing a short, black leather jacket. I struck up a conversation, though I was initially startled by how much she didn't sound like her radio persona.

We talked about the media's troubles and public radio as our row filled with various Philly glitterati. Ms. Gross is as big a Leonard Cohen fan as I am and said she'd taken a day off from "Fresh Air" to get ready for the concert.

A Portuguese model sat to my left and another well-dressed, beautiful woman who smelled like jasmine sat on my right. I couldn't believe it. It's amazing how much luck $179 plus a $2 handling fee can buy.

Esther Cohen joined our row and sat next to Terry Gross, who had no idea who she was. Esther didn't know who she was, either. I thought it would have been a wee bit presumptuous for me to introduce them.

When the lights dimmed and Leonard Cohen ran to the stage, everyone jumped to their feet. All of a sudden, it felt very democratic in that room full of well-off people.

Leonard Cohen kneeled and danced a little soft-shoe but he never broke into a sweat. He covered the microphone with his left hand and closed his eyes as he ran through his signature songs like a man in the midst of leisurely prayer. He never dabbed his forehead with a handkerchief or tipped a water bottle to his lips.

Between the songs and the cheers, you could hear a pin drop. My hometown had never felt so holy.

Tony Norman can be reached at tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631.


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