Bruce Cockburn: Simple, Graceful, Legendary

“This is Simple. This is Grace”. In speaking those two lines, the iconic Bruce Cockburn defines his what his music is. Poetic, philosophical, spiritual, and even in cases metaphysical, Cockburn subtly wowed me and the entire audience with a tour-de-force performance of new tunes as well as old classics.

Now, although I knew who Bruce Cockburn was, I was – much to my shame – not that really familiar with his music. I got lucky however. Not only do I have a father who was a “radical” leftist in the Ottawa folk music in the 1960s, the same time Bruce Cockburn was making a name for himself (my old man even ran a cafe where Bruce, among others, played at several times. I believe he also drove him somewhere once), but my friend that I brought last night is a Cockburn who knows all the songs – from the famous to the obscure – simply by hearing the first few notes. While my cohort believes that “Small Source of Comfort” is Cockburn’s weakest album, he qualifies that by comparing to a bad Picasso painting. It’s still a Picasso.

What struck me most about Cockburn was his lyrics. He is, in my mind, one of the best songwriters of his, or anybody else’s, generation. I offer the following verse as evidence:

Rhododendrons all in blue
Reminds me of another time
In Japanese tempo

The verse goes on of course, but those three in particular stuck with me in part because of the wonderful imagery that they paint and the beauty of the specific words. Reminds me of the great poets who would often write about nature.


Another thing that I was in awe of was the backdrop. Although there three musicians on stage (Bruce was backed by fiddle player Jenny Shineman and legendary drummer Gary Craig), well four if you count the guy backstage cleaning and tuning Bruce’s guitars, the backdrop consisted of a giant mosaic-painted shawl that lit up at various points throughout the night. For me, the defining image of whole show came when Bruce sang his iconic “Where The Lions Are” and the backing lights created stunning animal-like portraits. It rivals the stunning light show I saw as part of Jonsi‘s show where he essentially created a digital forest complete with animals and trees. There were orange lights, green lights, blue lights, and so much more. Each time, they enhanced the smorgasbord of emotions that are created by Bruce’s words, voice and instrumentation.

There was all sorts of variety. My buddy claims – and I agree for the most part – that Cockburn’s earlier stuff is more traditional folk, whereas his later tunes are more, in his words “aggressive”. Still the songs cover a wide range – folk, Canadiana, roots, rock, blues, and even jazz. Whatever the style, politics always seem to prevalent in some form. (Which makes sense for a guy who came of age in the nations capital in the 50s and 60s). He also mixed up singing and speaking. The more poetic lyrics were simply spoken, which made them all the powerful and mystical and rivalled Canada‘s grand poet Leonard Cohen. While Cockburn’s may not be as strong as used to be, he can pull off a powerful ballad and still possesses a wide and great vocal range.

The variety of instruments also added to the many layers that is a Bruce Cockburn. In addition to fiddle, backing vocalist Shineman also pulled out a mandolin and a lute. At one point Gary Craig pulled out a golf club to hit a couple of small crash symbols. Bruce laughed and may not have had prior knowledge of Craig’s fun. Bruce himself ended his set by playing an Indian-sounding Zither. My friend and likened it to a sitar, except it was boxed-shaped and could be played on your lap. Whatever the mysterious instrument was, it brought out so many ideas in one song and was a great way to end the show. Of course, Bruce and Co. did come back for an encore, but in terms an ending an actual set, it was the right fit for the show. Spiritual, emotional, philosophical, and so much more. Even in its subtlety, most likely because of it, Bruce Cockburn’s show was quite possibly the best I have seen all year, and perhaps of all time (at least since I started appreciating the power of live music). This was one for the ages.

Bruce Cockburn’s latest record is Small Source of Comfort, released on True North Records in 2011. He also just released “Pacing the Cage” a concert DVD about the making of his 2009 live album Slice O’ Life.

RIYL: Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, Blue Rodeo, Moody Blues, Colin Linden


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