Sunday, June 16, 2024

Concert review: Bruce Cockburn entrances his hometown audience

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Fortified by a repertoire that spans almost six decades and a number of stylistic shifts, he delivered two generous sets.

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On Friday, four days after his 79th birthday, Bruce Cockburn gave a wonderfully vibrant and expansive solo performance in front of a hometown audience packed to the rafters of the National Arts Centre’s Southam Hall.

It was a top-notch concert that showed the songwriting legend in peak form musically, his distinctive voice strong and his brilliant guitar work polished to the highest calibre.

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But our first glimpse of the Ottawa-born Canadian Music Hall of Famer prompted a ripple of concern. Hunched and bearded, a cane in each hand, he looked every bit his age as he made his way to an elevated stool flanked by guitars on one side and a wind chime on the other. He was met with a warm round of applause from a room filled with friends, fans and family members.

“Happy birthday,” yelled one enthusiastic voice in the crowd, a belated wish that Cockburn observed was starting to get a little old, before he caught himself.

“Other things are getting old, too,” he deadpanned, stating the obvious with a self-deprecating dig that lightened the mood, putting everyone at ease with his laidback sense of humour.

Then he tripped over the start of the first song, chuckled at himself again and recovered like a pro, settling into the haunting groove of The Blues Got The World, a tune he said he wrote while studying for the clergy.

With his chrome dobro catching the stage lights, next came the mournful Blind Willie Johnson lament, Soul of a Man, followed by the rich imagery of The Whole Night Sky. The sound was pristine, the audience entranced and the mood almost spiritual.

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Cockburn, who now lives in San Francisco with his wife and preteen daughter, switched instruments a few times, choosing between several acoustic guitars, including his green Manzer, as well as a little green charango, which looked like a 12-string ukulele, and even a mountain dulcimer, played on his lap.

Fortified by a repertoire that spans almost six decades and a number of stylistic shifts, from folk to jazz to rock, Cockburn delivered two generous sets, taking his time and showing no sign of fatigue. He focused on his most evocative material, including gems like Last Night of the World, Stolen Land, 3 Al Purdys, Lovers in a Dangerous Time and his 1980 breakthrough hit, Wondering Where the Lions Are.

Another highlight was a sweeping version of his landmark 1989 protest song, If A Tree Falls, that found the long-time activist railing against deforestation in lyrics so relevant that they could have been written last week.

Also nestled in the setlist were some of the powerful, understated songs from Cockburn’s excellent 2023 album, O Sun O Moon, including King of the Bolero, Push Comes to Shove and Orders, contributing to the zen-like vibe of the evening.

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Sixty years after graduating from Ottawa’s Nepean High School, with a yearbook entry proclaiming he intended to be a musician, Cockburn also took the time to recognize a fellow Nepean student, Peter B. Hodgson, who’s still around and better known by his stage name.

“One of the great things about high school for me was one of my classmates, who was a great inspiration to me as a guitar player and kind of introduced me to the whole world of folk music,” Cockburn said. “I’m talking about Sneezy Waters.”

The shout-out earned another round of applause, and Cockburn went on to wrap up the encore with a pair of nuggets from the latest album, the world-weary Into The Now and the bittersweet  When the Spirit Walks in the Room, dropping his voice to its gravelly depths to emphasize the message that we’re all but a “thread upon the loom.”

All in all, it was a fantastic performance from a musical legend who has clearly worked hard to remain at the pinnacle of his abilities despite the physical challenges that come with aging. In other words, he’s still got it.

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