A city and an industry bid farewell to a legend in grand style in Montreal Monday night as friends, family, and fans gathered for the Tower of Song tribute to the late Leonard Cohen. The evening struck the perfect balance of celebration and memorial, with the performers mixing somber acoustic versions with sanguine numbers that took advantage of the bass, drums, guitar, piano, organ, sax, trumpet, backup singers, and 20-odd string orchestra to produce fuller, livelier interpretations of those found on Cohen’s albums.

Walking out between two floor-to-ceiling drapes was Sting, who kicked things off with “Dance Me To The End Of Love” (Sting, for his part, would take the stage twice more throughout the night.) Behind him, between the curtains, in a small window high up above the stage was a projection of Leonard, looking down on those artists who gathered to pay him homage. He would remain there for the entirety of the evening.

Photo by Claude Dufresne
Photo by Claude Dufresne — Claude Dufresne

Feist recreated her performance of last year’s Junos, where she sang “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye” in honour of the man who had died just months earlier. Also restoring an earlier Cohen cover was k.d. lang, whose “Hallelujah” couldn’t be sung with more conviction had she written the song herself. Lang, whose version of the song appears on her 2004 album Hymns of the 49th Parallel, walked the stage with ease, pulling the mic from its stand and emoting upon the massive Bell Centre stage — something that could not be said for a majority of the performers, who seemed bolted to the floor (or, at least, bolted in front of the lyrics monitor).

Photo by Claude Dufresne
Photo by Claude Dufresne — Photo by Claude Dufresne

Ironically, the evening’s first charm offensive came from a politician (and his wife), as Justin and Sophie Trudeau, walked out to much applause and a sparse standing ovation. The pair then regaled the audience with tales of Cohen, with Justin serenading his wife with the classic Cohen line, “You told me again you preferred handsome men // But for me you would make an exception.” They then revealed the extent of the role Cohen’s music played in their lives, choosing “I’m Your Man” for their wedding song.

Photo by Claude Dufresne
Photo by Claude Dufresne — Photo by Claude Dufresne

Then would be Canadian Ron Sexsmith for “Suzanne”, Elvis Costello (minus his fedora, interestingly) for “The Future”, and Damien Rice for “Famous Blue Raincoat”.

Audio clips of Cohen would play over projected images as interstitials, segueing from one song to another, and providing the crew an opportunity to prep the stage for the next performer. Hearing from the man himself reminded all of his wit, his philosophies, and his innate skill as a storyteller.

The lynchpin of the evening, Leonard’s son Adam, came out for the first of many appearances, an uplifting take on “So Long, Marianne”. 

A 15-minute intermission gave way to “Tower of Song”, performed in person by the men of the Shaar Hashomayim Choir (the Cohen family’s synagogue) and — via video — Willie Nelson, Celine Dion, Peter Gabriel, and Chris Martin, who, one after the other, delivered the song’s verses.

Canadian actor Seth Rogen later came out to recite “Field Commander Cohen” but not before delivering the night’s funniest line: “For a Canadian Jew, there is no greater thrill than reading a Leonard Cohen poem in a hockey arena.”

Other highlights included Courtney Love, whose lack of a trained voice did not detract from the emotion in her version of “Everybody Knows”, and Lana Del Rey, who, along with Adam Cohen, produced a contemplative “Chelsea Hotel #2”.  

Few words were shared by the performers — perhaps such a packed setlist doesn’t lend itself to bouts of improvised chit-chat with a packed arena — as it wasn’t until Elvis Costello emerged for a second song (“Bird On A Wire”) that a performer addressed the audience, thanking the Cohen family for putting the event together and introducing the 30-odd backing musicians/singers who accompanied the stars.

The trend of celebrating Cohen’s earlier works was broken when the men’s choir returned to the stage to sing backup to a recorded Cohen singing “You Want It Darker”, the title track from his Juno-winning 2016 album, his last.

The three-and-a-half-hour evening seemingly came to a close with all the performers taking a bow then leaving only Adam to perform along with surprise guest Basia Bulat the first song of his father he ever learned: “Coming Back To You”. He would then give way to Bulat, who ended the night on a joyous note with her country-tinged version of “Closing Time”.