Bruce Cockburn and Friends Barrelhouse All Night Long

By Greg Quill for the Star

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Wednesday, June 16, 2010 - In the song business, they say the most convincing proof of a composer’s skill is in the adaptability of his or her work. The better the song, the more likely it is to cross genres, to bridge cultures and generations — in other words, to endure.

Bruce Cockburn, right, sings Lovers in a Dangerous Time with Barenaked Ladies members Ed Robertson, left, on guitar, and Jim Creeggan, on bass, at Massey Hall on Wednesday evening June 16, 2010 - Photo: RICHARD LAUTENS/TORONTO STAR

And though Bruce Cockburn probably won’t ever be able to buy a manse in St. Tropez with royalties from the scant number of cover versions of hundreds of his compositions — they’re just too tough, too profound, too complex for mass consumption — the quality of his craftsmanship over 40 years and some 30 albums was stunningly evident last night in an all-star celebration of his life’s work at Massey Hall, in the third annual edition of the Luminato festival’s Canadian Songbook.

About two dozen of the Ottawa-born songwriter’s gems — some well known, others not so — proved themselves perfectly ready for reinvention in genres as diverse as rap, rock, country, jazz pure pop, folk and blues, performed by an astonishing array of virtuoso Canadian musicians and singers, including acoustic guitarist Jason Fowler, jazz guitarist Michael Occhipinti, folk-rapper Buck 65, country rockers Blackie and The Rodeo Kings, country-folk singers Sylvia Tyson and Amelia Curran, popsters the Barenaked Ladies and Hawksley Workman, and folk-pop trio The Wailin’ Jennys.

That no song suffered in being transformed had a lot to do with the concert’s attentive and empathetic musical director and longtime Cockburn admirer, guitarist/arranger Colin Linden, who led a brilliant five-piece band that accompanied just about every performer, and stepped occasionally — donning a vivid embroidered jacket — into Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, alongside Stephen Fearing and Tom Wilson.

Cockburn himself was front and centre for a burn-down-the-house version at the end of the first of two hour-long sets of his biggest "hit," " I Had A Rocket Launcher," in which Cockburn performed a punishingly percussive solo on acoustic guitar, and a blistering "Tie Me At The Crossroads," backed by both bands. "The only thing better than three guitars is four guitars," Linden quipped before counting in the gutsy rockers.

Earlier the audience had been treated to much more subtle reinventions of favourites in the Cockburn oeuvre:

• Fowler, a classically trained guitarist, served up a graceful, finger-picked version of "Sunwheel Dance" at the top of the show, referencing several other Cockburn songs in passing.

• Buck 65 complimented Cockburn on his "rapping skills" before performing "Slow Down Fast" and "If A Tree Falls," accompanied by drum loops on his laptop and tasty guitar licks from Linden.

• Sylvia Tyson, after a lengthy introduction by CBC Radio personality Jian Ghomeshi, whose tongue seemed to tire before intermission from enunciating an abundance of superlatives describing the evening’s stars, served up a plaintive "One Day I Walk."

• And Newfoundlander Amelia Curran performed two uneasy pieces — "Mama Just Wants to Barrelhouse All Night Long," a slow, menacing shuffle that required the voice of a serious belter, and a breathless, almost inaudible "All the Diamonds."

But the real star of the first set — the deadline for this review precluded taking in the second — was Occhipinti and his brilliant jazz ensemble. Their ethereal take on Cockburn’s "Homme Brûlant," all shimmering guitar spikes and golden trumpet tones, was unforgettable.

~from by Greg Quill.

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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.