Cockburn: No small source of comfort
by DARRYL STERDAN - Winnipeg Sun Copyright © 2011

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6 April 2011 - Tuesday, April 5 @ Burton Cummings Theatre With Jenny Scheinman
"Perfection is elusive," Bruce Cockburn admitted to about 1,000 fans at the Burt on Tuesday night.

Maybe so. But you know what they say about practice and perfection. And Cockburn has had plenty of practice. Nearly half a century of it, in fact. Enough time to release more than 30 albums and become Canada’s reigning folk-rock figurehead (sorry, Neil; thanks for trying, Joni).

Trying to cram all that history and music into one 110-minute show is impossible. But the 65-year-old singer-guitarist made a pretty fair stab at it in his half-dozenth visit to the city since he played the inaugural Winnipeg Folk Festival back in 1974. Armed with a handful of acoustic guitars and his unmistakably warm pipes, and accompanied only by a percussionist and violinist, Cockburn presented a 21-song set that spanned his career, from his most recent compositions to what he called "the oldest song I know — that I wrote, anyway." [Bruce is referring to the song Gifts]

He started closer to this end of the spectrum, with the spry Last Night of the World and the mellow Mango, both from 1999’s Breakfast in New Orleans, Dinner in Timbuktu. Clad in black T-shirt and baggy pants tucked into combat-style boots, he looked casual yet serious — though his centre-parted gray hair, glasses and gentle smile gave him the appearance of a preacher at a Bible camp singalong. And come to think of it, those pants might have been just a little too distractingly baggy in the crotch area; I’m not sure drawing attention to his package was the plan, but if so, mission accomplished, dude. But I digress.

Cockburn, on the other hand, wasn’t being distracted, deflecting a steady stream of requests with comebacks like, "Thank you for asking for that." And really, the fans — roughly divided between faithful old folkies and 20-something newbies — needn’t have worried. Bruce didn’t play every hit he’s ever had — If I Had a Rocket Launcher and Making Contact were notable by their absence. But he included enough of them to keep any folkie satisfied. And changed them up enough to keep the rest of us interested. Lovers in a Dangerous Time was dark and swirling, thanks to his phaser pedal. Tokyo got an energetic delivery, with some slashing guitars. Wondering Where the Lions Are supplied all the Afro-pop chime required by law, with the audience providing the response to his chorus call. The environmental rocker If a Tree Falls retained every bit of its power and passion.

Between those landmarks, there were plenty more highlights for the dedicated. Case in point: The dark ballad Put it in Your Heart. (Said Bruce: "This was my contribution to the plethora of post-9/11 songs, some of which were pretty darn crappy. You’ll have to decide for yourself if it belongs in that category." Just for the record, it doesn’t.) There was the angry slow-burner Call it Democracy, which prompted a Green Party supporter to yell, "Let Elizabeth May speak," earning a quick "Shut up!" from a fellow fan (hey, it wouldn’t be a Cockburn show without a little political debate — though the man himself wisely stayed out of it, simply quipping "You’re calling for songs we don’t know" to the pair). Later, the hypnotic Indian-spiced meditation Arrows of Light found Cockburn trading in his emerald-topped acoustic guitar for a droning dulcimer. And a handful of cuts from this year’s upbeat CD Small Source of Comfort — including the spiky blues-rocker Five Fifty-One, the moving military eulogy Each One Lost and the surreal Call Me Rose (which imagines Richard Nixon reincarnated as a ghetto mom) — made it clear Cockburn’s songwriting prowess has not diminished with time.

Nor, obviously, has his taste in bandmates. Percussionist Gary Craig and violinist Jenny Scheinman both proved subtle yet distinctive accompanists, colouring around the edges of Cockburn’s precise fingerpicking and rich melodies. Craig moved deftly between a cymbal-heavy kit to hand drums, adding lightly syncopated grooves and a wealth of clattery textures. Scheinman switched between violins, mandolin and bouzouki, offering ethereal ambience, emotive countermelodies, rootsy ethnic motifs and sweet vocals, even taking the lead on her own Littlest Prisoner (the Brooklyn-based performer also did double-duty as the show's opening act).

By the time the trio closed with a lengthy encore — consisting of the jaunty instrumental Lois on the Autobahn, the seafaring All the Diamonds, the blues-rocking Tie Me at the Crossroads and the short-but-sweet vintage vignette Gifts — Cockburn and co. were no small source of comfort, joy and entertainment.

It may not have been perfect. But it was close enough.

Set List

~ by Darryl Sterdan, from Winnipeg Sun, 6 April 2011.

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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.