by Byron Woods
Durham Performing Arts Center
Tuesday, Nov. 3
Durham went 10 rounds with Leonard Cohen last Tuesday night. That assessment isn’t just based on the stamina the spectrally voiced 75-year-old songwriter displayed after nimbly bounding onto the DPAC stage moments after 8 p.m. and animating 24 hits, choice obscurities—and one new work he’d premiered the week before—before dancing off three hours later, just after 11:15 p.m. It also conveys the feeling during much of that time.
Perhaps the single most underreported fact of Cohen’s career is the quality that bankrupts most of the glib descriptions he’s collected over 40 years in music—as the so-called godfather of gloom, poet laureate of pessimism, even the wryly self-bestowed “grocer of despair.” If his work is so unrelievedly dour, why did a near-capacity house leave the DPAC so conspicuously … happy?
Critics and scholars before me have connected Cohen’s muse to the notion of duende, the profound Spanish aesthetic embodied in the seemingly disparate fields of bullfighting and flamenco dance and song. To the degree it’s true—and I believe it is—for Cohen, it’s not because his basement baritone suggests anything like the trembling, high-pitched cries of the classical cantaores of flamenco. (That quality we heard repeatedly on Tuesday night, not in Cohen’s voice, but in the beautiful unquiet of Javier Mas’ agitated, Phrygian runs on the Spanish bandurria and archilaud—most notably in the luminous solo Mas seemingly excavated, chip by chip, out of the darkness itself at the beginning of “Who by Fire.”)
Rather, Cohen’s connection to the duende lies more in the words themselves and their delivery, which Cohen frequently spoke as well as sang. Much the same could be said for Federico Garcia Lorca, another poet who not only probed the duende in his verse but also wrote analytically—and lyrically—about its quality in his essays.
It’s a difficult concept to translate, but duende has to do with the intimate relationship between passion and absolute disaster. It articulates the risk inherent pursuing the truest, most intensely felt emotions to the end, at all costs. Duende gives us the stern reminder that when we strive for the deepest love, we must ultimately be prepared to experience the deepest pain. It confronts us, at once, with the contradictions of intimacy and desolation; sex and alienation; love and total loss.
Since duende so admonishes and threatens us, perhaps we should be clear about what side it’s on. The answer might be surprising to some. Duende, it seems, is on the side of life. So is the art of Leonard Cohen.
Let that sink in for a moment: Leonard Cohen, affirming life.
The truth is, you generally don’t report bad news if you’ve already decided to become one with it. The reporting is, itself, an act of resistance; a voice raised against the bad news being reported. Cohen made the point eloquently during the evening’s one cover song, a translated version of “La complainte du partisan,” Anna Marly’s first-person tale of a French World War II freedom fighter that Cohen recorded as “The Partisan” on his 1969 album, Songs from a Room. “The Partisan” gives stark evidence that, when the duende documents extreme passion exacting an extreme price, it is in sympathy with the former, and a critique of the latter.
If there is a ballroom of our common loss, Cohen remains its matchless troubadour. His is the voice that was made to drag the bottom of one river in particular: the one we’ve all gone to, at some point in our lives, to drown the damaged heart. Its human goal is to lift that heart once again.
Tuesday’s three-hour overview of his career reminded that Cohen was always more than some two-bit crow at the feast of the emotions. Unlike some, Cohen never sang in celebration of the knife. Instead, he concluded, long ago, that the soul’s best chance for survival lay likely in the frankest and least sparing assessments of the raw emotional facts.
His physical presence underscored this the whole night through. When his verses didn’t drive him down on bended knee—with a lightness and dexterity that belied three full quarters of a century—Cohen stood, his upper body curled slightly forward, knees bent, with both hands up, one holding a microphone near his face. The stance might have suggested the supplication that some of his characters sought in songs like “Bird on A Wire” or the widely covered “Hallelujah.”
But with the smallest shift, the same gesture echoed something very different. Call it a well-learned boxer’s crouch—the posture of a seasoned pugilist, expertly rejoining a fight of long duration, in the ring of the deepest-felt feelings.
On Tuesday night, he went the distance. His nine-piece band professionally burnished both older songs and new. Sharon Robinson, his collaborator in recent years, gave a different but compelling vocal depth to a song of sudden abandonment, “Boogie Street.” Backup vocalists Charley and Hattie Webb chilled the air with their perfect high harmonies in the stark petition, “If It Be Your Will.” If reedman Dino Soldo’s occasionally melodramatic antics would have aroused the anger of what Cohen once termed the Jazz Police, his keening lines still reinforced a number of songs, including “The Gypsy’s Wife.” The smooth orchestrations were grounded by music director Roscoe Beck on bass, Bob Metzger’s tastefully spare guitar, Neil Larsen’s keys and Rafael Gayol’s work on drum.
When Cohen’s voice sounded more papery than in previous decades, his hands—at times, nearly cupped around the microphone—reinforced the confidential intimacy of these poetic confessions. Nowhere was this more effective than his spoken-word rendition of “A Thousand Kisses Deep.” If we were struck by the desolation of those fatal errors of the heart documented in “Famous Blue Raincoat,” “So Long Marianne” and “Waiting for the Miracle,” the resilience and—dare I say —optimism with which he rose from these reportings was even more impressive.
All told, it made for one of the shortest three-hour concerts I’ve ever attended. “I tried to leave you at least a hundred times,” he wryly grinned, as he began the last song of the second encore of the night. The words and their delivery were an acknowledgment that, going into hour four, he had hardly worn out his welcome with a packed and vocal Durham audience.
Things rarely turn out so well for artists who befriend the duende.