24 January 1998, by Wilfred Langmaid - 'Cockburn's Album Should Thrill Fans'
After the odd foray into the mainstream commercial market in a career of nearly 30 years' duration, 53-year-old Ontario native Bruce Cockburn, has settled into a comfortable niche.
He is the ultimate musician's musician, blessed with exceptional guitar skills and rare lyrical brilliance. His legion of fans is informed and loyal.
As such, he was the ideal candidate for beyond Canada distribution by the Rykodisc label last year-a label specializing in talented artists just outside the main commercial mainstream.
Cockburn delivered in spades. His The Charity of Night album was an artistic masterpiece. It was a glorious fusion of his early wide-eyed folk sensibilities, his evolving awareness of world issues, and his ever-sharper tune-crafting skills and musical virtuosity of guitar.
As always, his lyrical poetry chronicled his spiritual and philosophical walk. Another facet of Cockburn's power, though, is live performance. The tour to support this album encompassed some 120 concerts.
It is given a powerful document with the live six-song EP You Pay Your Money And You Take Your Chance. Released on Jan. 20,, it contains 37 minutes of a potent show from last 3 May, only three weeks later than a glorious musical evening I spent in his midst on April 12 of last year in Portland, ME.
The tour, as always, garnered rave reviews. Typical were comments in The New York Times: "(He) flitted from the personal to the political, from his belief in a selfless God to his despair at selfish humanity. He remains one of the few musicians able to balance his role of artist and messenger in a decade when pop musicians often do their journeying on the rapist's couch."
Album No. 23 in Cockburn's career proves these words. The material ranges from early 1980s tracks to those songs from The Charity of Night. Also included are two mid-80s tracks whose treatment, so different from when these songs were performed in the last live Cockburn CD (1990s Live), clearly shows the neat flavor of Cockburn's current touring bent.
Youngsters Steve Lucas, a busy bassist, and Ben Riley, the only drummer I have ever seen who can double on vibraphones, provide meaty backing for a rockier sound. It is a neat revelation for long-time fans-the closest one gets to garage band Bruce.
In the process, the stark rage of Call It Democracy is transformed into an angry rocker against First World chess playing with Third World lives. Similarly, Stolen Land has metamorphosed form a solo rave accompanied only by hand drumming to a Bo Diddley hambone rocker; its message of our exploitation of our native peoples is just as strong.
The two early 1980s tracks - Fascist Architecture and You Pay Your Money and You Take Your Chance -are given straightforward readings without the breaks or jams that mark other tracks.
Heard here from this May 3, 1997 concert in Madison, Wis., one gets the same impression as that given when they came early in his April 12 Portland show; Bruce is continuing a personal, ethical, and spiritual pilgrimage and can still sing "Been through the wringer but I'm okay."
More stretched out are highlight tracks from The Charity of Night. The longest is Birmingham Shadows. The tuneful chorus is an almost incidental connective for the spoken word stanza and the jazzy jams.
The stanzas are blizzards of imagery in word association. At once a travelogue and a reminiscence, they are both a thinly-veiled ode to a brief fling on the road and a personal reflection of over five decades of living and nearly three decades as musical troubadour.
Moody and melodic, meanwhile, Strange Waters is Cockburn's conversation with his God, to whom he sings wryly and aptly, "You've been leading me beside strange waters."
Traversing upon this mortal coil, his words, "Where is my pastureland in these dark valleys? If I lose my grip, will I take flight?" take on added potency.
Cockburn has always put his heart on his sleeve. In the process, he expresses his personal walk with boldness. This live snapshot is a wonderful companion piece to his latest album, and it is certain to thrill his dedicated fans.
-- from The Daily Gleaner, 24 January 1998, by Wilfred Langmaid