MONTREAL — A star-studded lineup that included Sting, Feist and k.d lang delivered emotional musical tributes to Leonard Cohen in front of a rapt crowd at Montreal’s Bell Centre on Monday.
The concert, titled “Tower of Song,” took place on the eve of the one-year anniversary of the Canadian singer-songwriter’s death last November at the age of 82.
It opened on an upbeat note with Sting performing Cohen’s hit song “Dance Me to the End of Love,” and drew to a close with an emotional acoustic rendition of “Coming Back to You,” by the late singer’s son, Adam Cohen.
“Our goal was, as in many religions, to sing songs of praise to those who are no longer with us,” he told the cheering crowd.
“I know my father would be very grateful not only for the beautiful love you’ve given us, but for his songs being kept alive by these beautiful voices who’ve accompanied us.”
The show featured a number of top international stars including Lana Del Rey, Ron Sexsmith, Elvis Costello and The Lumineers’ Wesley Schultz and Jeremiah Fraites.
Canadian stars included Patrick Watson as well as Feist, who strummed a guitar during a stripped down version of Cohen’s “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye.”
The choir from the Cohen family’s Westmount synagogue, the Shaar Hashomayim choir, also took to the stage to sing backup to “You Want it Darker,” the haunting hymnal track on Cohen’s final album.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife Sophie Gregoire Trudeau made a brief appearance on stage, where they said their first dance at their wedding had been to the tune of Cohen’s “I’m Your Man.”
Trudeau said his father, former prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, met Cohen backstage once in 1988 and asked him, “What does one have to do to get a good review in this town?”
He also thanked Cohen’s son Adam Cohen for organizing the event, “as a son who also knew what it was like to have a challenging and larger-than-life father.”
Early in the concert, the crowd applauded warmly but mostly kept to their seats as star after star took to the stage to perform Cohen’s famously downbeat oeuvre.
The first standing ovation came midway, after Irish singer-songwriter Damien’s Rice’s dreamlike version of “Famous Blue Raincoat.”
He was followed by Adam Cohen, who performed “So Long, Marianne,” the song written for Marianne Ihlen, his father’s muse.
The performance began upbeat but turned emotional as the singer delivered the song’s second half in a spoken monologue with his eyes closed as the words, “Goodbye old friend,” flashed on the screen behind him.
Many of the performances featured simple, acoustic arrangements, including Ron Sexsmith’s “Suzanne” and k.d. lang’s power-ballad version of “Hallelujah,” which brought the crowd to its feet once again.
Some exceptions included Elvis Costello, who performed a rock-heavy version of “The Future,” and Courtney Love, who delivered a high-energy, punk version of “Everybody Knows.”
Comedian Seth Rogen, who read one of Cohen’s poems, also struck a lighter note as he took the stage.
“As a Canadian Jewish person there’s no greater honour than reading a Leonard Cohen poem in the middle of a hockey arena,” he joked.
Fans, including many from outside Canada, lined up Monday night outside the Bell Centre ahead the memorial concert.
Friends Marian Ohberg and Nancy Bartlett, who made the trip from Atlanta, showed up in black felt hats that resembled the type Cohen favoured.
They say Cohen’s music has been a theme of their 50-year friendship, prompting them to make their first visit to the city in decades.
“He’s a songwriter and a poet who loves women,” Bartlett said.
“Who can resist that?” Ohberg added.
Ronald Ferket, who came from Belgium, spent the day before the concert visiting some of the Montreal locations mentioned in Cohen’s songs.
Ferket, who has been a fan since 1967, says Cohen’s poetry and the messages in his lyrics are even more important than the music.
He says his personal life motto, inspired by Cohen’s song “Bird on a wire,” is to “try, in my way, to be free.”