At the Centre for Performing Arts in Vancouver on January 27
I’m a bit slow sometimes, I admit...
It took until last night’s show at the Center to see the connection between Bruce Cockburn and N.W.A.
N.W.A had the shocking temerity to confront middle class white America with gritty tales of police brutality, drugs, guns, and the complete inability of government to give a shit about anyone besides the ruling elite. Bruce Cockburn has for years been speaking the same truth to power, with a level of intensity that rivals “Fuck Tha Police”, and a degree of relentlessness that has caused him to be occasionally dismissed by some as being too earnest or preachy. They weren’t listening.
Cockburn’s songs have for years been serving up searing indictments of government-sponsored terrorism, systemic economic disparity designed to benefit the ruling class, and a host of other well delineated-social ills. Songs such as “Call It Democracy”, “Trickle Down”, and “If A Tree Falls” seem to have been ignored or disparaged by some at the time of their initial release, but in hindsight, they now seem downright prescient.
Perhaps this lack of attention, especially south of the border, is due to the fact that these words are delivered by a soft-spoken, somewhat diminutive gentleman from Ontario, instead of a group of loud and angry young men straight outta Compton. No matter. The message is, again, similarly clear.
And did I mention that the author of these weighty words is a monster guitar player?
I first got exposed to his music when I was 12 years old. As we only were able to get two TV channels on a good day, I was watching a CBC variety show, and on comes this early 20s hippie. Round wire-frame glasses, acoustic guitar, and a smile so beatific that you could practically smell the hash smoke. As he played “Thoughts On A Rainy Afternoon”, I was left trying to figure out where the other guitar players were offstage, as he had the ability to sound like three people playing at once.
What he was doing on the guitar just didn’t seem possible. He only got better.
As a songwriter, Cockburn has a deeply personal style, and although he has had some hits on Canadian radio, his style has never lent itself to mainstream radio in the US. Their loss. His songs almost always seem to be an emotional reaction to things deeply personal, as if he were a big toothpaste tube of human experience, and if you squeezed hard enough from the bottom, a great song would come out the top.
Saturday’s show at the Center began with an interesting set from Sarah Felker, aka Nefe. A 22-year-old singer-songwriter from Guelph, Ontario, she gave us a brief set of originals that showed off her powerful pipes. Girl can move some air, without question.
Accompanied by a second acoustic guitarist, she rendered a tight set. However, while Felker’s material was no doubt sincere and heartfelt, the writing seemed rather… youthful.
The music itself was not particularly harmonically adventurous, and all too often the songs fell into three-chord Jack Johnson campfire mode. At times, I almost expected a drum circle to break out, but thankfully, the crowd of mostly senior citizens was able to contain its enthusiasm. Dodged that bullet… That said, I think that as Felker develops and matures as a songwriter, we may hear great things in years to come.
Cockburn and his band then took the stage. The Canadian icon is 72 and still touring, and as such, he looked a little more hunched over and moved a little slower than the last time I saw him almost a decade ago. Nevertheless, he strapped on a vintage Fender 12-string electric and got down to business.
Right from the opening chords of “Tokyo”, it was pretty much a love fest. That led into “Lovers In A Dangerous Time”, and then “States I’m In” off his latest release, Bone on Bone. Switching guitars every couple of songs, Cockburn took the crowd on a trip that mingled hits, some obscure deep cuts, and new offerings like “Jesus Train” and “Bone on Bone”, which were performed on a resonator guitar.
His guitar style has always incorporated alternate tunings, and a pumping thumb on the bass strings while the other fingers on his right hand seem to have minds of their own. It was simply stunning on a gorgeous reworking of “If I Had A Rocket Launcher”, where he used a black Fender Strat going through a delay pedal, which introduced complex polyrhythms to an already complex fingerpicking part. Guitar nerd heaven.
After touring for so many years, Cockburn is a calm and relaxed presence onstage, and once again, that calmness and humour belie the ferocity of some of his lyric treatments. After the obligatory “Wondering Where The Lions Are” and “The Coldest Night Of The Year” (both substantially reworked for this ensemble), we were treated to a great performance of “If A Tree Falls”, a blazing critique of Amazon deforestation and human environmental indifference.
Cockburn’s backing band was quite wonderful as well. Drummer Gary Craig is blessed with not only impeccable time, but the ability to coax a vast number of tonal colours from his kit, beautifully complementing, but never dominating the music. His goofy facial expressions had me in stitches too.
Unassuming John Dymond on bass did an admirable job also. His playing showing a restrained virtuosity that never drew attention for attention’s sake, but the right notes were definitely played at the right time. Always. He also provided solid backup vocals on several songs.
Cockburn’s nephew, John Aaron Cockburn, rounded out the group, playing accordion, guitar, and violin in addition to providing background vocals. While the accordion seemed suited to a couple of tracks, for my money it seemed to add unnecessary clutter to some numbers. Or maybe it was just a little hot in the mix. I’m reminded of the Far Side cartoon “Welcome to hell. Here’s your accordion…”
All jokes aside, the singer’s nephew is also an absolutely killer guitar player, and I wish he could have been featured as a guitarist more. The apple does not fall far from the extended family tree.
With an encore of “3 Al Purdys” and an absolutely stellar reworking of “Stolen Land” that featured an extended psychedelic distortion guitar solo worthy of Jimi Hendrix or Robert Fripp, the evening drew to a close. The crowd of silver hairs politely indicated its pleasure and then shuffled home to adjust their medications.
All in all, a very satisfying evening for guitar nerds everywhere. As the saying goes, just because there’s snow on the roof, doesn’t mean there’s no fire in the furnace. Let’s hope Bruce Cockburn keeps kicking at the darkness for years to come.