Several times during Leonard Cohen’s epic and enveloping show at the Citi Wang Theatre Saturday night, the legendary singer-songwriter would sing one of his famous, devastatingly precise couplets and the audience would break into applause.
If the crowd had applauded every time Cohen’s poetic eloquence was displayed, it would’ve meant a nonstop ovation for almost the entirety of the 3-hour-plus performance. That might’ve been distracting but it would’ve been understandable given how deep his gift for expression runs and how impeccably it was brought to life by the man and his superb band.
At 78, it would make sense, even be expected, that Cohen would move a little slower or play for less time. But the opposite was true. The spry Cohen — cutting a natty figure in black suit and fedora as did most of his band — literally skipped about the stage, went down on his knees frequently, and played more than two dozen songs, ambitiously covering the ground between his 1967 debut and this year’s “Old Ideas.”
Gracious, funny, solemn, and admirably appreciative of his band, it was as if Cohen sensed that time for this kind of activity may be running out and he was going to make sure that both he and his fans were able to wring the most possible out of the experience.
The moods of the evening were varied, sometimes within the songs themselves from acoustic hush to full-band heat and from bleak to bawdy as Cohen sang in his burnished croak of love, life, sex, faith, and death.
First set peaks included the dark slow burner, “Everybody Knows,” the insidiously funky, organ-fired “Darkness,” and a poignant “Anthem.” The second set included many tasteful takes on Cohen classics — “I’m Your Man,” “Suzanne,” and “Democracy” among them — as well as backing singer and his songwriting collaborator Sharon Robinson’s powerful take on “Alexandra Leaving.” And as many strong covers there are of Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” it is always a pleasure to hear it back in its owner’s voice.
In a band full of stars, backing vocalists the Webb Sisters and Robinson were a particularly celestial choir — with the sisters reducing many to tears with their encore performance of “If It Be Your Will” — and Javier Mas, a master of several instruments including 12-string guitar and archilaud, provided warm colors throughout the night.
Sarah Rodman can be reached at