Leonard Cohen isn't quite as old as the Academy of Music, he just sounds like he is.
On Tuesday, the 74-year-old Canadian song-poet put on a magnificent three-hour-show at the 152-year-old opera house that was filled with prayer-like intensity and easygoing grace, not to mention sartorial splendor, meticulous musicianship and as perfectly crisp a sound mix as I can ever recall hearing at a rock show.
And the white-haired guy - who can look like an elderly gentleman begging for alms or a remarkably nimble and debonair cock of the walk, depending on whether he's holding his fedora over his heart or wearing it on his head - cracked a bunch of old guy jokes, too.
"I haven't been this happy since the end of World War II," he dryly croaked in "Waiting for the Miracle," the elegantly stately song in which he sang, "the maestro says its Mozart, but it sounds like bubblegum," before gesturing toward the bust of the Austrian composer atop the Academy's proscenium arch.
And Cohen altered a lyric in the sashaying "I'm Your Man," to volunteer to "wear an old man mask for you," as part of his septuagenarian seduction technique.
Cohen hasn't toured in nearly 15 years - or, as he put it, when "I was 60, just a kid with a crazy dream." In the interim, his stature has rightly grown as an iconic wordsmith of the first generation of rock singer-songwriters, a philosopher of love and death, sexual ecstasy and societal doom, whose cigarette-scarred singing voice has grown more effective even as its range has become more limited.
This time around, Cohen was backed by a superb 10-piece band whose standouts included the Spanish bandurria player Javier Mas, the keyboardist Neil Larsen, and a chorus consisting of Cohen's co-writer Sharon Robinson, and sisters Charley and Hattie Webb.
The crowd at the sold-out Academy - which would have been even more cross-generational if the ticket prices hadn't hit nearly $200 (not that anybody was complaining) - regarded him with deep respect.
Early on in the first set, Cohen performed "Everybody Knows," his song of political and personal betrayal from his fruitful late-'80s electronic phase. And at the Academy, everybody knew that he would probably still be holed up in a Buddhist monastery in Los Angeles if he hadn't been allegedly bilked out of millions by his former manager (he was later awarded $9 million by a Canadian court in a civil suit).
And everybody seemed happy with the turn of events, especially Cohen, who skipped on and off the stage each time he came and went over the course of two sets and three encores. (He didn't display as much gymnastic prowess, however, as the Webb sisters, who executed dual handstands early on during the dystopian "The Future," signaling that the marathon show to come was going to be as playfully theatrical as it was satisfyingly serious-minded.)
"So much of the world is plunged in chaos and suffering, it's remarkable that we have the opportunity to gather in places like this," Cohen said before "Anthem." And he may or may not have had the Liberty Bell in mind when he found hope in the idea that "there's a crack in everything, that's how the light gets in."
For a guy known first and foremost as a lyricist, Cohen pays acute attention to every acoustic detail. Every song got its due, and every Hammond B-3 or sax solo - from Larsen and multi-instrumentalist Dino Soldo, respectively - came through as crystal clear as the vocals.
One of Cohen's specialties has always been writing words that are about music - music as a source of spiritual sustenance without which the soul will wither and die. "But then, you don't really care for music, do you?" he sang in "Hallelujah," issuing the ultimate put-down in a blood-and-guts version that contrasted gravely with Jeff Buckley's ethereal cover.
In Cohen's apocalyptic encore of "First We Take Manhattan," he indicated his narrator's deprived state by asking: "Remember me, I used to live for music?" And in "Chelsea Hotel No. 2," he got a big laugh for rhyming "you told me again you preferred handsome men, but for me you would make an exception." But then he cut to the song's core by singing about the gift he was giving to his reverential audience at that very moment: "We are ugly," he sang, in an unpretty voice. "But we have the music."