MONTREAL — Those who came into contact with the late Leonard Cohen would invariably speak of his incredible presence — whether it was up close in person, in a TV interview or on stage during a concert.
Monday night in Montreal, on the eve of the first anniversary of his death, his presence was keenly felt by the 17,000 people who attended a sold out, three-hour, star-studded concert in his memory.
Despite his physical absence, Cohen, 82 at his death, loomed large throughout the evening by way of his songs and spoken words, photographs, videos, paintings, poetry and self-portraits projected on screens above and next to the stage.
Intimacy isn’t something usually associated with a cavernous hockey arena, but a feeling of familiarity, togetherness and shared emotion prevailed last night at the Bell Centre.
Chalk it up to Cohen’s persona and oeuvre, and the way it was showcased — coupled with the appreciation he’s always attracted from the public.
His family put together the event, billed as “Tower of Song: A Memorial Tribute to Leonard Cohen,” which featured an impressive lineup of Canadian and international performers.
From the moment plans for the event were first announced in September, it was clear this wasn’t going to be an ordinary concert. To be sure, Cohen’s music was the main focus — but there was much more.
As Sting opened the concert singing “Dance Me to the End of Love,” a black and white photograph of Cohen appeared on the upper wall behind the stage. Dressed in a jacket and tie, wearing his trademark fedora and looking out a window, it appeared that Cohen was three or four stories up, watching over the proceedings below — as if he were in a “tower of song.” The image would frequently reappear throughout the evening.
Cohen’s 45-year-old son, Adam, a gifted singer and musician in his own right, was the co-producer and driving force behind the event. He stayed true to his father’s wishes, as he explained to journalists ahead of the concert.
“My father left me with a list of instructions before he passed: ‘Put me in a pine box next to my mother and father. Have a small memorial for close friends and family in Los Angeles… and if you want a public event do it in Montreal.’ I see this concert as a fulfillment of my duties to my father that we gather in Montreal to ring the bells that still can ring. It corresponds to the one-year anniversary of his passing, and in the Jewish tradition, that represents the end of a year of mourning,” said Cohen.
Leonard Cohen always remained strongly attached to his hometown of Montreal, even though he spent many years in the United States, mainly in Los Angeles, where he died. Following his passing, he was buried in Montreal.
Monday night’s concert, a half-century since his first album came out in 1967, kicked off a week of events in Montreal honouring Cohen’s life and legacy. They include a major multidisciplinary exhibition at the city’s Museum of Contemporary Art that will run until April. Israeli film director Ari Folman is one of several international artists who have contributed to the exhibition.
It’s a safe bet that for most of the audience, which was predominantly over the age of 40, Cohen’s music has been a constant in their lives, each song triggering memories. The crowd listened attentively to the performances and applauded enthusiastically, many people rising to their feet after each song. At times, it almost felt like a communion, with the crowd clearly united in song, enraptured by what they were witnessing.
Five songs into the concert, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife Sophie appeared on stage. They spoke, in English and French, with great affinity for Cohen, arguably the most famous and internationally admired Jew that Canada has ever produced.
“Leonard was an extraordinary Canadian but he was a giant of Montreal,” Trudeau said before his wife Sophie added, “As Montrealers, we like to think Leonard belongs to us, but let’s remember he belongs to the world.”
She then mentioned that at their wedding in 2005, she and Justin walked down the aisle to the sounds of Cohen’s most well-known song, “Hallelujah,” and took their first dance to “I’m Your Man.”
In addition to Sting, other performers included Elvis Costello, Feist, k.d. lang, Courtney Love, Lana del Rey and many others.
Together, often accompanied by a 25-piece orchestra including an extraordinary lute guitarist, and three female back-up singers, they performed 22 songs from Cohen’s illustrious canon, covering different genres.
Damien Rice provided one of the more poignant performances when he sang “Famous Blue Raincoat.”
A special video montage had Celine Dion, Chris Martin, Peter Gabriel and Willie Nelson each singing different parts of “Tower of Song.”
Adam Cohen performed several songs, his resemblance to his father in appearance and singing style clear for all to see, especially when he played “So Long Marianne” and “Chelsea Hotel.”
In the first of a series of videos played between songs, accompanied by his distinctive speaking voice ruminating about life and sharing his pearls of wisdom, stills from different periods in Cohen’s life appeared briefly on the screen. One showed him performing for Israeli troops in the Sinai during the Yom Kippur War in 1973 alongside Israeli singer Matti Caspi, with Ariel Sharon standing next to them. It’s unlikely many in the audience recognized anyone other than Cohen in the photo or could guess where and when it was taken.