November 16, 1997
Somerville Theatre, Somerville, Massachusetts
By Steven Stuart Baldwin
Bruce Cockburn's music, some might say, is an acquired taste. It's certainly born out of the folk music of the 1960's, yet it encompasses so much more as each new chapter appropriates or revisits a myriad of styles culminating in a wide assortment of blues, jazz, rock, country, and even "alternative" tones. He has been creating music for over 30 years, including nineteen albums of original work; has been covered by a wide range of artists from Jerry Garcia to Anne Murray to the Barenaked Ladies; and he's still going strong in the Nineties--a time which has already seen seven releases: three new albums of original material, one Christmas album, two live albums, and a re-release of a 1977 live album Circles in the Stream. The breadth and depth of his body of work is a testimony to his staying power, despite the fact that he's never become a household name like his contemporaries, Bob Dylan or the Rolling Stones.
The concert at the Somerville Theatre in Somerville, Massachusetts, may have been just another stop on yet another tour, but Bruce Cockburn loves what he does and it shows. Each song, be it vintage or new, was performed with an urgency and devotion that only a lover of music exudes. I've seen him in concert a number of times before, but never as a solo performer. This night found an enthusiastic audience enjoying Cockburn and a trio of guitars at his most basic in the most intimate of settings.
The first and clearest impression one gains from this sort of concert is of Cockburn's virtuoso guitar playing. Cockburn can pick with the best of them, and we fortunate concert-goers witnessed the ample evidence of countless guitar solos and the two instrumentals opening both sets. There were a measly few jumbled notes here and there along the way emphasizing his humanity, but overall the amplified guitar notes drew the listeners into a clandestine country of harmonious delights. Of course, this says nothing about his voice which has also remained remarkably unwavering in its power and emotional effectiveness over the years.
The second impression of the night was the sheer wealth of his collected material. Currently on tour in support of his most recent album, The Charity of Night, you'd expect to hear an ample amount of songs from it. He didn't disappoint in that respect and played all but three songs from the new one. But we were also treated to a splendid smorgasbord of other favorites stretching as far back as "Silver Wheels" from 1976 all the way up to a trio of tunes from 1994's Dart to the Heart. We could have kept him there a few more nights and not heard all of our favorites, but overall this particular evening was a well-rounded journey through old and new albums, primarily from the 1980's and 1990's. Surprisingly, however, given the nature of this solo show, we could've expected but didn't hear such acoustic favorites as "Wondering Where the Lions Are," "All the Diamonds...," and "One Day I Walk." The songs rolled out one after another like a freight train on an errand of mercy over hills, through woods and into the heart of our thirsty country.
A third impression hit home regarding Cockburn's remarkable consistency. He may have incorporated many different styles and tones over the years, but he's basically doing what he's always done: turning vivid poetry into passionate snapshots of life. His albums are often considered to be either activist and political in nature or personal and spiritual in focus. In actuality most of his albums have been a mixture of these qualities and more, and this show was no exception. Songs like "If I Had a Rocket Launcher" and "Call It Democracy" are as political as songs can get. Complementing these were "Soul of a Man" and "Child of the Wind" which inspire us to a more spiritual landscape beyond the world of mere politic. In his world the mundane and the supernatural mix in an appropriate harmony where the so-called secular and sacred aspects of life are truly united. We were blessed to hear a great batch of tunes with too many highlights to mention in so short a space, but I'll name a trio.
Fervent fans were delighted to hear "After the Rain," a song from 1979's Dancing in the Dragon's Jaws. Cockburn has a habit of digging out some relatively obscure oldies but goodies, and this was the night's pick. Another gem was the "The Mines of Mozambique" which Cockburn shared as the first song in the first of two encores. It's a song that seems on the surface to be just another conscience-raising piece, this time about the current land-mine treaty. In actuality, it's a very disturbing and heartfelt look at the horrors of land mines--a tableau of memories from a trip to Mozambique. This song was coupled with a rare and apparently unanticipated story-telling moment on Cockburn's part. Most of the evening he concentrated on playing with nary a between-song comment besides the ubiquitous thanks, but as an introduction for this song, he shared some thoughts about the song's inspiration, the current land mine treaty and US-China relations, ranging from the humorous to the insightful. In a new song, "Embers of Eden," Cockburn talked about being inspired by an astronaut's observation that the only two man-made constructions noticeable from orbit were the Great Wall of China and scorched rainforests. He used both images in a very catchy love song which is sure to become a concert favorite in coming years.
Bruce Cockburn is both an appreciable poet and consummate musician, an artist that mixes beautiful words and beautiful music in such a way as to capture our imaginations, tug at our hearts, raise the banners, question our wisdom, or merely celebrate our gift of life in all its grandeur and grace as well as foibles and folly. When you contrast Cockburn's skills with artists who merely sing about girls and cars, angst and exploitation, it's no wonder that Cockburn is an artist who requires more than the usual bit of attention. As we found that night in Somerville, being more than just a passing fad and worth more than a cursory glance, Cockburn's art will actually widen your horizons and subvert your soul. He is a taste worth acquiring.