Cockburn relaxed, intricate and all-around impressive
at a solo gig at the WOW Hall
Review by David Evarts, Photos by Anna Crary, who also contributed as an editor.

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27 April 2010 - Eugene, OR -

Bruce Cockburn 25April2010 WOW Theater Eugene OR -Photo by Anna Crary

It must be that Canadian water. When I sit down and soak in Bruce Cockburn’s lyrics, I’m reminded of the heart-stopping poetry of Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, and (yes, even) Neil Young. Like these compatriots, Cockburn is generally characterized as an acoustic singer-songwriter. His studio albums tend toward the pop end of folk, with some jazz inclinations and a wide variety of instrumentation. He is best known as a writer of progressive political songs with a pastiche of imagery. Some of these images are drawn from his Christian faith; many others are snapshots from his travels through Africa, Eastern Europe, Latin America and just about everywhere else. Wherever he journeys, Cockburn’s attention is divided between beauty and destruction, grace and human heartache. I appreciate Cockburn for his warmhearted poetry, his intelligent lyrics and his luscious melodies. I went to his solo show at the WOW Hall on Sunday, April 25 expecting to hear songs I know and love, played in a simplified solo version in an intimate setting. Like so many wonders in this world, however, the experience felt much bigger than the sum of its parts.

The stage was set with huge wind chimes flanking the microphone. The chimes were attached to drum foot pedals, which Cockburn worked while playing guitar. He was ringed by a collection of other instruments including a dobro, a 10-string mandolin, one 12-string and two six-string guitars and a Tibetan singing bowl. Before the show even started, fans had left a small pile of tangerines and notes in front of the microphone stand. Audience members handed him flowers immediately after his first song and continued placing notes and artwork for him onstage throughout the show. At one point Cockburn joked with the audience that he’d be unable to continue playing because he owed it to people to stop and read the fan mail.

His onstage persona was casual, amused and interactive. The audience members shouted out song suggestions, quips and words of appreciation. One audience member commented that she was "just glad" he was not Sarah Palin, which made him laugh. When someone else requested an obscure song, Stained Glass, Cockburn started to excuse himself, explaining that he’d never played the song solo before. He then changed gears and said this was the safest place he could think of to give it a try. It was interesting to watch the creative process as he transformed the song from a multi-instrument cabaret jazz song to a solo guitar and voice piece.

Bruce Cockburn 25April2010 WOW Theater Eugene OR -Photo by Anna Crary

I was not surprised that the WOW Hall was packed. There were a few teenagers and a sprinkling of younger adults, but most of us were sporting some silver hair. Folks were wearing a Eugene mix of business casual, tie-dye and jeans and fleece. People were boisterous, happy and participatory. Many swayed and danced that Saturday Market floating groove. It was a mutual love-fest between artist and audience. When he wasn’t on stage, the event had the feel of a relaxed potluck dinner party; chatty activists and professionals bubbling over with a wealth of information, goodwill and insights. I attended with my wife and two friends. She’s an accountant; they are a musician and a chemist. The folks around me, with whom I engaged in charming conversations between sets, were a carpenter and a teacher. I suspected that we were a good sample of the audience.

This show reminded me that Cockburn’s politics are more nuanced than a first-time listener might suspect. Bruce played a new song for the soldiers and other victims of the ongoing war in Afghanistan.[ This song is called Each One Lost ] It was written after a visit to his brother, who is serving there as a doctor in the Canadian army. He asked us to remember that the returning soldiers do not need the type of hostile reception that Vietnam-era soldiers experienced. He stated that the world does not need more division into "us and them." The song’s refrain reminded us that each one who dies is a loss to all. In a tribute to Bruce Cockburn at the Juno music awards, Bono cited Cockburn as a major influence, both as an activist and as a poet. (U2 helped themselves to a line from Bruce’s Lovers In a Dangerous Time: "You’ve got to kick at the darkness/ ‘til it bleeds daylight.") Two of Cockburn’s best-known songs, If a Tree Falls and If I Had A Rocket Launcher are direct, confrontational comments on forest destruction and a massacre.

In the encore, If I Had A Rocket Launcher gave us Cockburn’s reaction to the Guatemalan's government’s massacres of their refugees just before and after his visit there in the ‘80s. Backed by intense dobro work, Cockburn sang "If I had a rocket launcher, I would retaliate." The uncharacteristically crude lyrics were criticized by my musician friend as sounding somewhat jingoistic. My wife noted that in light of his comments about Afghanistan, "Rocket Launcher" perfectly expresses the conflicted feelings of a pacifist exposed to systematic horror, akin to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s decision to take part in a plot to kill Hitler.

Bruce Cockburn 25April2010 WOW Theater Eugene OR -Photo by Anna Crary

I was knocked off my feet by Cockburn’s playing and the waves of sound generated with a single instrument. Somehow, listening to studio albums, I hadn’t noticed how impressive he is with a guitar. At times, he simultaneously picked complex melodies and cascades of notes and strummed rhythm. He used a full display of electronic foot pedals with his acoustic instruments. He often played passages through a delay pedal and then played a second third or fourth passage against his delayed passages, which occasionally bounced back and forth in stereo between the two sets of speakers. Combining the layers of guitar with chimes and percussion created further layers of sound. I don’t believe that I’ve ever seen a solo artist weave such a dense cloth of melodies and rhythms. Our musician friend was speechless. The audience frequently roared. Bruce played two encores. The second was extremely well done, but I had the distinct impression it was not planned. He stayed after the show for an hour exchanging hugs and chatting with audience members.

This was my first Bruce Cockburn concert. I’m curious as to how typical of his shows it might be. A couple of my friends at this show who had seen him perform said this was the most relaxed and friendly interaction between Cockburn and an audience they had seen. I bought his new CD Slice O Life: Bruce Cockburn Live Solo, which contains some stage banter, Cockburn’s songs rearranged for solo performance and other details, such as sound check and impromptu playing. I gather from the CD that although this may have been a particularly friendly crowd and Cockburn may have been responding to that, he is usually willing to engage the audience. At one point he remarked that he’d been playing for audiences for 40 years, and wouldn’t still be doing it if it weren’t fun.

Reprinted with permission by David Evarts, original here: ( ).

Related Links
  • Setlist April 25 WOW Eugene OR More show reviews and photos here.
  • ~ bobbi wisby

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    This page is part of The Cockburn Project, a unique website that exists to document the work of Canadian singer-songwriter and musician Bruce Cockburn. The Project archives self-commentary by Cockburn on his songs and music, and supplements this core part of the website with news, tour dates, and other current information.