If Leonard Cohen didn't exist, David Lynch would have to invent him.
In a performance with his stellar nine-piece band that was a mystifying mixture of "Blue Velvet" and dialog with that other poet of song, Bob Dylan, Cohen delivered an evening that moved a capacity audience from the first song to the last. It didn't hurt that the first song was "Dance Me to the End of Love," his meditation on love (his most common topic) and the Holocaust.
It also didn't hurt that he immediately dropped to his apparently much younger knees in a posture that evoked a more humble James Brown. To even pull off a song with references to that tragic chapter in history is an accomplishment; to put it across with grace and panache to a Downtown crowd on a Friday night is simply amazing.
And just who are these Cohen fans?
I was a lukewarm one until last night, but now I'm close to red hot. I always respected the man's work, chuckled at a few of his best lines and adored, along with generations of Americans, his song "Hallelujah."
Having said that, I am wary of a certain middle-brow vibe that can surround shows that attract this demographic. Often, it can prove to be an evening of professional but not necessarily risky show biz.
This had all the trappings: an elegant set with curtains dropping like the aurora borealis from the heavens and changing colors just as often, the band and the man in tasteful black or charcoal grey suits and every touch of production, from sound to the obligatory curtsying guitar techs, doing their jobs.
What distinguishes the "Man with the Golden Voice" from many of his contemporaries, and allows him to rise a little above the middle-brow crowd, is his songs. Each of them has an equal measure of danger and sly humor written in, and once that's done all that's left to do is hone the performance. He has obviously approached that task with gusto.
Claiming he "didn't want to be a nuisance" after not playing Milwaukee for 38 years, he sprinkled his set with funny lines, including the one where he rolls out of bed, a somewhat haggard old man, steps to the mirror and says to himself, "Lighten up, Cohen!"
The trick, of course, with most of his material somewhat south of the mid-tempo mark, was to make it all come alive. He seemed to have no problem owning the courtly statesman character he has created and his frequent introductions of his band, which included his collaborator, Sharon Robinson, and bassist/musical director, Roscoe Beck – lately in town to work on some Greg Koch tracks.
My conversion began on the first number and I was ready to testify by the time he finished the stunning early career number "Bird On A Wire." Had there been a call to the stage, I would have been ready by the time he was through with "Everybody Knows," and if he had been recruiting martyrs for his world crusade, the stunning recitation of his poem (you read that right, poem), "A Thousand Kisses Deep," would have sent me to boot camp.
The troops rallied for "Democracy Is Coming to the USA," kicked off with a martial snare by Rafael Gayol (who spent a few years here playing with The BoDeans) and the The Webb Sisters, along with Ms Robinson, marching in place. Javier Mas, a Spanish virtuoso on an instrument called the twelve string bandurria, soloed for a few minutes at the beginning of "Who By Fire."
Other highlights included "Suzanne," probably one of his most covered songs, and the one that really introduced his European aesthetic to the world and "I'm your Man," a lusty roue's advertisement.
Then came the song that has been performed by many but never stolen from the gruff voiced crooner, "Hallelujah." Like Johnny Cash and Dylan, he proved that you can't top a wily older performer with cheap tricks like singing well.
The sense that a truly generous spirit took command of the stage in a state of zen-like control was unavoidable and the three-plus hour show (not always a treat), which featured three encores, demonstrated a level of energy and commitment rare in today's music.
Let's hope he doesn't wait another 38 years to drop in on us again.