Leonard Cohen’s O2 Concert Is Part Of A Remarkable Renaissance

As Leonard Cohen brings his world tour to the O2 Arena, Luke Turner discovers that even the biggest venue makes for a perfect pulpit for the master of song. First published in 2008

Leonard Cohen at the O2 Arena. Scroll down for a full photo gallery

"We appear to be on the wrong side of intimacy," remarks Leonard Cohen dryly. He’s clearly aware that the enormous O2 arena is hardly the venue in which his many acolytes might have hoped him to make his unexpected live return to London. 30 feet high on the screens that flank the O2 stage, Cohen’s features show his 73 years: his neck is that of an elderly man, his eyes look tired and sometimes moist, those elegant lines on his face are now deep furrows, his hands wrinkled and spotted. "Last time I stood on a stage in London was 15 years ago. I was a young man with a dream," he deadpans. "Since then I’ve spent time reflecting on and studying the word’s major religions, but cheerfulness kept breaking through".

It’s this great humour and wonderful energy (he skips on and off the stage with great agility) that is making this tour into a remarkable renaissance for Cohen. Days later, a photograph of him will appear on the cover of The Times to illustrate an interview with Alistair Darling, the broadsheets heave with profiles, and yet more UK concerts have been announced for the autumn. People can gripe all they like about the ticket prices, but this might be one of the last opportunities to see one of the greatest lyricists of the 20th century play live at a series of concerts that would never have happened had his former manager not run off with all Cohen’s cash.

What’s more, the O2 surprisingly offers up a better atmosphere than at the concert I saw at Edinburgh Castle the night before. The sound is spotless, for a start, and the crowd more enthusiastic. One group of women on the front row have brought along a banner that they leap to their feet to brandish between songs. Cohen is still the thinking woman’s crumpet, and the ladies’ man clearly has life in him yet. This is a crowd that crosses the generations, too – like me, many of the younger members of the crowd seem to have brought the old man and ma along.

But why is it that Leonard Cohen’s songs still resonate so? Because of his perfectly imperfect voice, viscous and deep, that enlivens his words. Many are present to hear the truisms on love aired tonight (see ‘Ain’t No Cure For Love’, ‘I’m Your Man’, ‘So Long Marianne’, an astonishing recital of ‘A Thousand Kisses Deep’), or his exploration of the search for self in an antagonistic world: as ‘The Future’ has it, "The blizzard of the world / has crossed the threshold / And it has overturned / The order of the soul". Or, as I’m Your Man and The Future albums examined, that imperfect world itself. The line directed at "the killers in high places [who] say their prayers out loud" from ‘Anthem’ has as much, if not more, meaning in our time as it did when Cohen wrote it in the early 1990s. Yet so too, does his optimism – from the same song, "Ring the bells that still can ring / Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in." Interestingly, this is the lyric selected to be emblazoned on the tour t-shirts.

Up there on those big screens, with his face possessed of such love and wisdom, these great themes take life with ever-greater clarity. No matter how many times you’ve listened to the records, hearing the power of these songs performed live is worth any exorbitant Ticketmaster booking fee. Venues like the O2 might often be the most dispiriting of places, cattle sheds stinking of chips and cheap cologne. But tonight raises the possibility that when enormodome experiences go awry, you ought blame the preacher, not the church, for a man with the gravitas and humble, simple power of Cohen captures souls with ease. Like so much of Cohen’s music over the years, tonight presents a strange kind of intimacy, but it’s a beautiful one all the same.

Leonard Cohen setlist:

(Leonard Cohen photo gallery below)

*Dance Me To The End Of Love

*The Future

*Ain’t No Cure

*Bird On The Wire

*Everybody Knows

*Secret Life

*Who By Fire

*Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye



*Tower Of Song


*Gipsy Wife

*Boogie Street



*I’m Your Man

*A Thousand Kisses Deep

*Take This Waltz

*So Long, Marianne

*First We Take Manhattan

*Sisters Of Mercy

*If It Be Your Will

*Closing Time

*I Tried To Leave You

*Wither You Goest

First published in 2008

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