GRAND PRAIRIE -- Perhaps Leonard Cohen isn't as well known as he should be because he chronicles the agonies and ecstasies of life a little too precisely.
That eye for detail, an endlessly forgiving heart, a droll sense of humor and the great, rumbling baritone were on full display Friday night at Nokia Theatre, a stop on Cohen's first American tour in 15 years and his first-ever appearance in north Texas. For just over three hours, Cohen indulged a fervent, adoring audience with 28 songs, supplicating before his art, which so deftly mixes the profound and the profane.
Cohen's gift for piercing insight places him among the rarest breed of singer/songwriters -- an artist unafraid of the dark places, but perfectly happy to cloak seediness in sunny pop and folk melodies. Augmented by an immaculate nine-piece band, including Austin bassist Roscoe Beck, keyboardist Neil Larsen, guitarist Bob Metzger, drummer Rafael Gayol, saxophonist Dino Soldo, back-up singers Charley and Hattie Webb (whose duet on If It Be Your Will was mesmerizing) and Sharon Robinson and guitarist Javier Mas, Cohen rifled through his catalog, doling out treats like The Future, So Long, Marianne and, of course, the timeless Hallelujah, which proved to be an emotionally charged show-stopper.
At the tender age of 74, Cohen can croon lyrics like "I have tried in my way to be free" and convey a lived-in wisdom only previously suggested. The passage of time and carelessness of memory have always been foremost in Cohen's work; watching him now, cradling his words as though they may shatter before he's finished uttering them, adds a depth and poignancy to even the happiest tunes.
There's a reason other songwriters revere the Canadian troubadour -- he has a knack for bending the simple and sacred back upon themselves, twisting the familiar into breathtaking new forms. Fusing Latin rhythms and the loose, improvisational reflexes of jazz; spine-tingling, multi-part pop harmonies and the rigid structure of poetry, along with sung-spoken refrains of classic folk traditions, Cohen merrily skips across genres, just as he does onto and off of the stage.
Cohen's was a flawless, thrilling performance from the opening moments to the final notes; a brutally beautiful evening of music that only reinforces the emptiness and emphatic hollowness of most modern acts. It's certain when 2009 draws to a close, Cohen's north Texas debut will be remembered as one of the year's finest moments.
"It's been a long time since I stood up on a stage," Cohen said, near the end of the first set. "We're really lucky to be able to gather in places like this." Hallelujah.
1. Dance Me to the End of Love
2. The Future
3. Ain't No Cure for Love
4. Bird on the Wire
5. Everybody Knows
6. In My Secret Life
7. Who By Fire
8. Chelsea Hotel #2
9. Hey, Thats No Way to Say Goodbye
11. Tower of Song
13. The Gypsys Wife
14. The Partisan
15. Boogie Street (Sharon Robinson solo)
17. Im Your Man
18. A Thousand Kisses Deep (recitation)
19. Take This Waltz
20. So Long, Marianne
21. First We Take Manhattan
22. Famous Blue Raincoat
23. If It Be Your Will (the Webb sisters duet)
26. Closing Time
27. I Tried to Leave You
28. Whither Thou Goest