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Last night, about a month after his 75th birthday, Leonard Cohen packed NYC’s Madison Square Garden to the rafters. Earlier in the week, he’d released Live at the Isle of Wight 1970, a CD/DVD package documenting a festival set he played when he was just shy of 36. And here’s the thing: Ask me which of the two performances was more compelling, more full of life, more can’t-look-away transcendent, and…I’ll have to get back to you on that.

Sure, Cohen had a certain bright-burning intensity 39 years ago. He waited til after 2 A.M. to go on stage in 1970, which I imagine he wouldn’t be as happy to do today. His voice could hit a few more high notes back then. But that’s about all the obvious advantage that young Cohen has over old Cohen.

“I don’t know when we’ll be passing through here again,” he told the Madison Square Garden crowd early in last night’s set. “So I want to tell you that it is our intention to give you everything we’ve got tonight.” Leonard Cohen does not make empty promises. Backed by a tight folk-rock-jazz band of mostly gray-haired virtuosos, plus three otherworldly backup singers (including frequent collaborator Sharon Robinson), he played for nearly three hours. Cohen (pictured above at another recent show) hit the major peaks in his catalog along the way: “Suzanne,” “So Long, Marianne,” “Bird on the Wire,” “Famous Blue Raincoat,” “Chelsea Hotel #2,” “Hallelujah” (earning a standing ovation), “I’m Your Man,” “First We Take Manhattan” (of course), “Everybody Knows,” “The Future,” “Anthem,” to name just a few utter classics.

His voice today — deeper, wiser, more gravelly even than in his deep, wise, gravelly youth — imparts something to those songs that they were always meant to have, as several critics have noted in recent months. Cohen himself cuts a dashing figure as he kneels, bows, and dances lightly on and off the stage in his sharp suit and hat. He remains every bit the winking showman, laughing drily mid-song at his own lascivious punchlines. Most of all, Leonard Cohen is grateful to be performing arena concerts in 2009. He told us as much, thanking us during one of several encores “for keeping my songs alive all these years.” He’s the one who deserves our thanks, of course.

Have you seen Leonard Cohen in concert recently? Were you there at the Garden last night? Share your thoughts on his remarkable return to concert touring in the comments below.

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Photo credit: Tomas Hudcovic/isifa/Getty Images