“The thumb drone or an alternating bass. You sort of have one or the other and Mississippi John Hurt was a great source of direction, I guess would be the way to put it, because of the beautiful and simple way he used to put the melody over the alternating bass. I mean he just played the melody of the song, and that was like nobody else I had heard, it wasn’t just licks, it was the actual melody. That sort of opened up a whole new thing and because of my interest in Jazz and other types of music that all got added in so when you take that same sort of right hand technique and apply it to a more complex musical approach you end up with something like what I do.” — Bruce Cockburn
I’ve been following Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn since 1981, when I first saw him perform in Ft. Collins, Colorado. After that extraordinary concert (more on that later), I’ve tried to see Bruce every opportunity I get, close to 30 shows by now. His albums are on regular rotation in my household. My point? I’m a somewhat knowledgeable but by no means unbiased judge of his work.
Bruce made his more or less annual appearance at The Birchmere on Oct. 27 to finish up an East Coast run of dates in support of his new album, Crowing Ignites (True North Records). It’s a collection of new instrumental pieces, three of which were performed this evening, “Bardo Rush,” “April in Memphis,” and “Blind Willie.”
Stream Crowing Ignites from Bruce Cockburn on Spotify:
Bruce has an uncanny ability to draw from myriad influences and not sound like he’s appropriating anything. Over the years, his musical style has ranged from folkie to rock to jazz to singer-songwriter. He’s long been an intellectually curious musician, drawing on influences from South and Central America, Asia, Africa, and of course American folk, rock, and blues.
His first album, Bruce Cockburn, largely a collection of acoustic folk tunes, appeared in 1970. His Christian faith and spirituality informed much of his writing during those early years and continues to do so today. Yet, he’s never preachy or overbearing. Indeed, I remember one performance where he lamented certain TV preachers blaming the 9/11 attacks on gays and women who’d had abortions saying, “I’m a Christian, but not one of those Christians.”
Over the ’80s and ’90s, his discography included a fair number of classic albums; Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaw (1979), Stealing Fire (1984), Nothing but a Burning Light (1991), and The Charity of Night (1996). Additionally, Bruce had begun playing more electric guitar and the songs reflected that — more energetic, more electricity. His work on behalf of Oxfam as an observer led him to write some of his best known, and most passionate songs; “Lovers in a Dangerous Time,” “People See Through You,” and “If I Had a Rocket Launcher.”
See Bruce Cockburn perform “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” on Austin City Limits (and check out that guitar solo at 3:30):
In the 2000s, Cockburn’s work has become more introspective, as he honed his craft as a songwriter and explored his place in the world. Indeed, during the show at The Birchmere, Bruce spoke of going through a songwriting period that emphasized light and the sun. Years later, he began writing songs about darkness and night. “I find something comforting about streetlamps, reflections off cars, and the warmth inside people’s windows as you walk by at night.” The Bruce Cockburn of today seems to have distilled all those contrasts into a coherent whole, so that this evening’s show contained elements of all his phases, the joyous and angry, the traveler and homegrown blues player, the jazz aficionado and pop troubadour, and finally, the yin and yang of light and dark.
The performance began with Bruce (on guitar, charango, chimes, vocals) and his equally accomplished nephew, John Aaron Cockburn (accordion, guitar, vocals), taking the stage at precisely 7:30pm. Opening with “Bardo Rush” from the new album, we were (and would be all night) treated to Bruce’s guitar virtuosity from the outset.
See Bruce Cockburn perform “Bardo Rush” from Crowing Ignites at Paste Studios on YouTube:
When You Give it Away
Last Night of the World
World of Wonders
Peggy’s Kitchen Wall
Child of the Wind
3 Al Purdys
April in Memphis
Bone in my Ear
States I’m In
All the Diamonds in the World
Call it Democracy
Wondering Where the Lions Are
See How I Miss You
When the Sun Goes Nova
Bruce’s ability to simultaneously play a bass line, pick out a lead, maintain a rhythm and sing a distinctive, pleasing melody is mind-boggling. Solo or duo shows allow his fans to appreciate just how accomplished he truly is as a musician. For me, it all came together during the encore with the performance of “Blind Willie,” a sly, upbeat, instrumental blues rocker that definitively showcases his talents as a player and composer.
See Bruce Cockburn perform “Blind Willie” live in studio on YouTube:
My introduction to Bruce’s talents was a long time ago but is burned in my memory like it was yesterday. About a half hour into the previously mentioned Ft. Collins gig the power suddenly cut out. As Bruce and his band were about to hit the instrumental section of the song (“Creation Dream,” as I remember), the amplifiers went dead and, under a lone emergency light illuminating the room, they played a completely improvised instrumental section without missing a beat, coming right back into the song as power was restored some 20 minutes later — a truly spontaneous, unplugged moment where the power of expert musicianship was tested like I’ve never seen since.
Bruce is on tour in the western USA and Canada through November, and music lovers everywhere should see Bruce Cockburn perform at least once in their lives. At 74, he may not be able to hit the road much longer, but his powers as a guitarist, singer, and composer have certainly not diminished since my first of his concerts.
Here are some pictures of Bruce Cockburn performing at The Birchmere on Oct. 27, 2019. All photos copyright and compliments of Mark Caicedo.