- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 14, 2009

At 74 years of age, Leonard Cohen has become the craggy immortal that always lurked in his voice and in the lyrics and flawless meter of his majestic songs. The weathered face, the severe black suit and fedora now seem like they were always there. It’s easy to forget that while he is a decade older than most of his musical contemporaries, he was a comparatively young man when he wrote some of his best loved songs, like “Bird on a Wire,” “So Long, Marianne” and “Suzanne.”

His searing, often self-abnegating lyrics were borne of emotional and spiritual struggle, but as a singer Mr. Cohen appears serene and confident. Even after two sets stretching over more than three hours, Mr. Cohen felt spry enough to bound and skip on and off the stage between encores Monday night at the Merriweather Post Pavilion. His rigid baritone held steady throughout the show, despite the unseasonable chill and driving rain that soaked those watching from the lawn.

He played, by my count, 24 songs on Monday evening. Some were pitched as austere confessionals, some set to lush orchestrations that featured multiple solos by his fellow musicians. Mr. Cohen is touring with a top-flight band. Neil Larsen set the tone with the whistling, easy Hammond B3 sound that played beautifully with Bob Metzger’s spare, haunting electric guitar. Alternating between the small, mandolin-like banduria and the 12-string guitar, Spanish guitarist Javier Mas added unexpected grace and life to the often bleak and gritty sentiments of Mr. Cohen’s songs. Longtime Cohen collaborator Roscoe Beck was credited (during Mr. Cohen’s two rounds of band introductions) as both bassist and musical director and deserves special kudos for his imaginative and elegant arrangements.

Mr. Cohen, for his part, played a little guitar, but not much. His playing has always been the shakiest part of his game. He earned a courtesy ovation for a little bit of one-handed keyboard noodling on “Tower of Song” to open the second set, and acknowledged the roar of the crowd impishly, saying, “You’re too kind.”

To go by the relative youth of the crowd, most of his current fans probably came to him through the back channel of popular cover versions of “Hallelujah” by the late Jeff Buckley or Rufus Wainwright or even “American Idol” contestant Jason Castro. It is doubtful that many were disappointed; Mr. Cohen is that rare living legend who lives up to the hype. Unlike other artists of similar stature (Bob Dylan springs to mind), Mr. Cohen makes his work perfectly accessible, enunciating every lyric with fierce precision. Despite the elements, it was not a show to be missed because, as Mr. Cohen said by way of thanking the audience, “I might not pass this way again.”

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