Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn shows some signs of his age. He used a cane when he took the stage at the Warner Theatre Friday night. But once he started playing, you’d never have known he was 78. A skilled and sophisticated guitarist, his hands are still nimble and his playing is impressive — and his voice is well-preserved.
Born in the Canadian capital city of Ottawa in 1945, Cockburn has playing music for roughly six decades. He took up playing the guitar in his teens and went on to attend Boston’s Berklee School of Music, intending to make a career as a jazz composer. Though he left after three semesters to spend time busking in Europe, the jazz influence can still be heard in his music all these decades later.
After returning from Europe, Bruce played with several bands in the late ’60s before releasing his self-titled debut in 1970. He found immediate success in his home country, winning a poll for Best Folk Singer three years in a row in the early ’70s. He came to be known as “Canada’s Best Kept Secret” until he broke through internationally with 1979’s Dancing In The Dragon’s Jaws.
In the early ’70s, Cockburn experienced a spiritual awakening and became a Christian. While spiritual themes appear in many of his songs — notably, on Friday, in “Soul of a Man” and “Forty Years In The Desert — he has a deft touch, never preaching with his lyrics. It’s worth saying: Canada isn’t just a northern extension of the United States. It has a distinct culture, including the relationship between religion and politics. While Christian conservatism isn’t unknown in Canada, it doesn’t exist there to the same degree it does here. Environmental themes often appear in his work, too, in songs like “If A Tree Falls In The Forest.”
And Bruce is by no means a conservative. Quite the opposite, in fact. He’s known for his activism and advocacy of progressive causes, which make their way into songs like “Stolen Land,” with deals with the legacy of colonialism and the treatment of Native Americans, who are referred to as First Nations in Canada. Speaking of First Nations, he co-wrote “To Keep The World We Know” with a First Nations songwriter, Susan Aglucark.
“To Keep The World We Know” appears on his latest album, O Sun O Moon — his 38th studio record — which was released earlier this year. Several songs from the record appeared in his set: “On A Roll,” “King of the Bolero,” “Orders,” and the title cut.
Watch a lyric video for “On a Roll” by Bruce Cockburn on YouTube:
Bruce started his set with “The Blues At The End of World,” describing it as a way to “commence the evening with a bit of philosophy.” “This would’ve come into being sometime between the fall of the Sumerian empire and Alexander the Great,” he quipped about “The Rose Above The Sky.”
“Some of you may remember Y2K,” he said, introducing “Last Night of the World.” “Most of you,” he added. “Once in a while, someone brings their kid. All are welcome, even squalling babies.” This amused me, as I’ve been following some conversations on Twitter about fussy adults freaking out over noise from children in public places. (If you want quiet, I suggested, you should stay home!) Though he thought the predictions of looming disaster were hysterical nonsense, he did stock up on bottled water. “The only other thing I would need,” he said, “is ammunition. Then I could get the rest.”
There were some old favorite in the set, too, like the lovely “The Whole Night Sky” and “Lovers In A Dangerous Time.” He invited the audience to sing along to “Wondering Where The Lions Are,” saying, “The worst that can happen is anarchy. How bad can that be?” “You don’t know this one, probably,” he said of the last song in the main set, “When I Arrive.” He mused, “What’s life without a little adventure?”
For his encore, Bruce played the aforementioned “Forty Years In The Desert,” which references the Israelites time wandering after the Exodus from Egypt, and “Stolen Land.” He sent the crowd home with “Laughter.”
Dar Williams started off the evening with an hour-long set, beginning with “Time Be My Friend,” from her most recent album, last year’s I’ll Meet You There. She wrote “The Beauty of the Rain” 20 years ago, and mused on the differences in mood between sunny days and inclement weather. “Are You Out There?” she explained, is about her lifelong love affair with radio, both the stations she grew up listening and those that have played her music. She embraced the weirdness of the stations she gets played on song, where her songs might be mashed with “astrological readings” or complex discussions of “wastewater management.”
Watch Dar Williams perform “Are You Out There?” live for SiriusXM on YouTube:
The astrological readings are fitting, given her own particular spiritual leanings, which can be seen in “The Christians and the Pagans.” She noted the song was “out of season” (it’s set at Christmastime), but she was inspired to play by recent news of places like Salem, Massachusetts leaning into their history with witches and witchcraft.
Many of Dar’s songs touch on elements of her childhood. “The Babysitter’s Here” is a tribute to a hippy babysitter she had in the ’70s. Introducing “The Mercy of the Fallen,” she talked about how her dad taught her about the constellations and the related Greek myths. To this day, she considers the scent of binoculars — which they used to look at the sky — “the smell of people who care about things.”
In addition to her music, Dar has written two books. What I Found In A Thousand Towns celebrates the revitalization of America’s downtowns and main streets. She recalled how, when she was starting out in the early ’90s, “everything was emptying out into the big boxes.” To her delight, she’s seen the trend reversed in places like a cluster of towns in New York State, which she sings about in “Little Town.”
Before finishing her set with “When I Was A Boy,” Williams talked about Bruce’s influence on her and her friends in New England, praising him for both his musical output and his activism.
Dar Williams and Bruce Cockburn represent the best of the the contemporary folk tradition, combining vital, relevant lyrics with the highest level of musicianship. There’s a reason they’ve been around as long as they have.