Review: Bruce Cockburn’s flame burns undimmed in masterful performance at NAC

Bruce Cockburn.

The back is slightly bent and the hair has been bleached by time but Bruce Cockburn, that musical lion, doesn’t seem ready for eternity quite yet, even if he might be thinking about it.

The legendary singer songwriter returned Friday night to a packed Southam Hall in the National Arts Centre with a tight band that featured his nephew John Aaron Cockburn on guitar and accordion and longtime musical associates Gary Craig on drums and John Dymond on bass, and a new lineup of music from his first album in seven years called Bone on Bone. It is the 33rd of a storied career that began in Ottawa in the 1960s.

Delivering this new album was not easy. Cockburn has said in many interviews that he struggled to find the muse after finishing a memoir called Rumours of Glory. The man writes songs based on inspiration, a spark that ignites a song and he couldn’t find it until he helped in a fundraiser to preserve the home of the Canadian poet Al Purdy. Thinking about the poet produced a song called 3 Al Purdys and all of a sudden the fire was lit.

Cockburn’s part of the evening opened up, early on, with a crowd-pleasing rendition of Lovers in a Dangerous Time from 1984. Getting one of the hits out of the way cleared the way for a run of songs from the new album which showed the man has lost nothing off his voice or his picking or his ability to write a lyric that is multi-layered in meaning.

States I’m In is such a tune. It’s the song that is put forward on his website as an entry point to the new album … “All the places I’ve been each one reflected in the states I’m in…”

One aspect of this new record is its embrace of spiritual matters. Cockburn has found spirituality in his latter years accompanying his wife to a church in San Francisco, where they live with their six-year-old daughter.

Cockburn has always leaned to the spiritual but now he is more clearly focussed on what he indicated in an interview with ARTSFILE, as God’s plan.

The songs from Bone on Bone, such as 40 Years in the Wilderness, which he played Friday night, reflect that sentiment. But he’s not abandoned concerns for such things as the environment which was at the heart of the intense and pointed song False River off the new disc. He also spoke to the need for reconciliation in Canada with indigenous nations in the song Stolen Land which was released in 1990.

He flashed back to the tune Free To Be (1977) which took a shot at an extreme right wing organization called the Western Guard. North American society today faces another resurgence of this kind of white nationalism, making Cockburn’s song a prescient warning. And he fired up his Rocket Launcher to underline the point. Nor did he ignore my particular favourite Wondering Where the Lions Are. It’s hard to believe it was released in 1979.

Cockburn’s guitar skills haven’t suffered a whit from the ravages of time. He can pick it any way you want it from a classical sound with hints of Spain in it to flat out rock guitar god. This was amply demonstrated in every song including the instrumental Bone on Bone that is on the CD of the same name.

Cockburn’s evening wrapped up with a standing ovation and three encore tunes including an oldie The Coldest Night of the Year and ending with a nod to God in the song Jesus Train.

Now it’s on to Toronto where Cockburn is to be inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame along with another legend Neil Young, along wth Quebecers Beau Dommage and Stéphane Venne.

The evening opened with Hamilton, Ontario’s Terra Lightfoot, who offered her own strong voice and talent on the guitar in a stripped down performance of new music from her next album, New Mistakes, which is coming out in October.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.