Published: The Independent, 6 August 1999
Bruce Cockburn: singer/songwriter; Canadian; amazing guitarist; the man who single-handedly bussed in the languages of physics and cosmology and applied them with rare articulacy to the rough-hewn poesy of rock’n’roll, illustrating the achievements of God and garnering thus a word-of-mouth audience for life from the intellectuals of the nascent Charismatic movement. As that movement mushroomed, Cockburn stepped sideways, going around the trouble-spots of the world raging against corruption, famine, deforestation, third-world debt, the problems of Native Americans, people with rocket-launchers and wrestling with the certainties of his early work. The songs and albums that documented those adventures swung between an occasional razor-sharp polemic like ‘Call It Democracy’ and po-faced rants that signaled a danger of Cockburn’s career imploding under the weight of portentousness.
With that as background, Cockburn’s more recent work on Rykodisc – the quite exceptional The Charity Of Night in 1996 and now Breakfast In New Orleans, Dinner In Timbuktu (out next month) – has found the artist accepting that he cannot do or change everything. A more poised, observational strain has entered his work, where personal politics, that old sense of wonder resurrected and a stoic view on the ills of the world can all share a table. And, as evidenced tonight at a venue purpose built for the ‘listening audience’, he is not without a sense of fun – particularly notable when seemingly forty people all decided to visit the gents, stage left, at the same time. You had to be there.
Recent songs have tended to feature spoken passages, where the novelistic beauty and mystery of his words and their cyclical, sometimes fragile, sometimes pile-driving instrumental settings create a richly compelling mindscape. ‘Sometimes’ offers Bruce, ‘things don’t easily reduce to rhyming couplets.’ Showcasing the new album, ‘Isn’t That What Friends Are For?’, achingly poignant, and ‘When You Give It Away’, crunching of riff, joyous of spirit, were two cases in point. So when a piece of simple verse/chorus genius like ‘Pacing The Cage’, from the last album, gets an airing it is all the more stunning – words and music that are crying out for coverage by an artist capable of chart success. These things, of course, never happen and so it will always be a great adventure for the perennial trickles of individuals to ‘discover’ the well-kept secret of Bruce Cockburn.
One senses Cockburn, 54, is comfortable with the prospects of perpetually revered semi-obscurity. The state of his faith has been a topic of periodic conversation in recent times. Tonight, he had a surprise for the cognoscenti: ‘I haven’t played this for 20 years’ he says. ‘It didn’t seem pertinent. It seems pertinent now. Read into that what you will.’ The song that followed, ‘Dialogue With The Devil’ – almost old enough itself now to qualify as a Dead Sea Scroll – was a revelation. Wherever he’s at, Cockburn still has something very powerful to say and is doing so with the maturity of a truly great artist, with material that is consistently his best in years.