Friday 24 October 2014

The ballads of Kilmainham Gaol

Published 02/09/2012 | 06:00

A golden sage: Leonard Cohen is Dublin-bound

You wait 20 years for the damned elusive Leonard Cohen to play a show in your town -- and then when he does turn up, you can't get rid of him.

Incredibly, the seer of Montreal's quartet of gigs in the grounds of IMMA at Kilmainham will be his fourth visit to this island in almost as many years, a statistic which would have once seemed as likely as Andy Carroll leading the line for Barcelona.

Field Commander Cohen had vanished off the showbiz radar like a latter day Amelia Earhart. It was only when then he turned his attention from a detailed study of the Tao in California's answer to St Kevin's Glendalough hideout -- the meditation centre in Mount Baldy -- to a detailed study of his bank statements that he realised that there was some serious bad karma going down.

If he ever writes a memoir about this period, he should title it 'Zen and the Art of Financial Vigilance'. And earlier this year, a former business associate (and as it turned out, a former lover) was convicted of harassment.

Spurred into action, his eye-watering monetary loss was our gain -- L Cohen has since been following in the footsteps of the indefatigable Bob Dylan, doing a passable impression of his so-called Never Ending Tour.

So if the element of surprise is gone as he prepares to return to the same green corner of Dublin 8 where he wowed 30,000 people with those extraordinary shows over three nights in May 2008, it is replaced by a feeling of anticipation, as we take our seats safe in the knowledge that this old geezer with the fedora is the coolest, most badass 77-year-old on the planet.

Somehow, with his advancing years, that voice has only grown richer with the lowering of each octave. And there was something deeply touching about the great man's humility -- his repeated generosity towards his band, as he introduced them for the umpteenth time, was the mark of a class act.

When he returned to The O2 for a series of shows the following year, the experience was enhanced by it being indoors and the upgraded venue's state-of-the-art acoustics. And the set- list was jazzed up too. We thought we might have seen the last of Laughing Len then; his pension plan replenished, we gave him our blessing to enjoy his dotage as he pleased.

But the Dalai Lama himself could not stop him from taking up the offer to arise and go to the old country haunt of one of his favourite poets -- Lissadell House in Co Sligo -- where WB Yeats once stayed as a guest of his friends, Eva and Constance Gore-Booth. Under Ben Bulben, Cohen gave an astonishing performance that really felt like one poet paying homage to the ghost of another.

And now he's back in Kilmainham again, in the grounds of the gaol where the men whose names Yeats called out in a song were ushered into history.

This time around, the set list will be augmented with songs from his most recent album, Old Ideas, released to gushing reviews last January.

If it proves to be Cohen's swan song, it's a great way to bow out. The plinkety-plonk synths were ditched in favour of a more organic sound. After all, when you've got backing musicians this good, it would be a sin not to use them.

And so, soulful trumpet and fiddle arrangements unfurl alongside Hammond organ flashes with an unhurried jazz-club ease. And the urbane and sometimes bawdy and sometimes sorrowful lyrics show that age has not withered his unique songwriting gifts.

He sings of himself as "a lazy bastard in a suit", about to meet his maker. There's a weary fatalism that's shot through with bittersweet memories about the past and a gallows humour when contemplating the future.

If he feels the time is drawing ever closer to the moment when he steps off the stage for good, he's still got a few tricks up his sleeve to relieve the dread. Old Ideas proves that the circus animals have not deserted this particular ringmaster.

A splendid time is guaranteed for all.

Leonard Cohen plays the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham, Dublin, on September 11, 12, 14 and 15.

nkelly@independent.ie

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