While 15 years is a long time to go without a visit from the greatest living songwriter this side of Bob Dylan, the sold-out crowd that packed into the Beacon Theatre for a visitation from songwriter/saint Leonard Cohen Thursday night could be forgiven for feeling just the tiniest twinge of trepidation. After all, Cohen is 74 years old now (for those doing the math, that's eight years older than Paul McCartney), and hadn't been seen in these parts since the Clinton Administration.
Any such reservations were completely washed away almost instantly, from the moment Cohen opened the evening with "Dance Me to the End of Love," bent down on one knee like the romantic poet king he was born to be, finessing the tune with a voice as deep as ever but perhaps twice as flexible as the last time he hit a Big Apple stage. Fronting a six-man band plus three female backing singers, Cohen shuffled around the Beacon with elan, spiffily attired in a dark suit and hat that made him look like a film noir detective. He threw himself into the music with a measured pace but unfettered emotional depth, as he offered up the old favorites like "Bird on a Wire" and "Hey, Thats No Way to Say Goodbye" alongside more recent compositions like "A Thousand Kisses Deep" (delivered as a recitative) and "Democracy" (whose sociopolitical landscape seemed more timely than ever now, especially with its reference to "the battered heart of Chevrolet").
As deep and dark as Cohen is capable of going, he never fails to throw in a graveyard grin, both in his writing and on stage. In the midst of wryly claiming that he'd been undertaking intense religious studies, for example, he observed that he'd been foiled because "cheerfulness kept breaking through." And as heavy as the messages and imagery of the evening's fare were, that's the very phenomenon the audience seemed to experience too when all was said and done.