Bodhisattva of song

Bruce Cockburn makes music to wake up the world

Bruce Cockburn

Bruce Cockburn

Photo By Tom Angel

Bruce Cockburn
Paradise Performing Arts Center, Sat., Feb. 21

Bruce Cockburn began his enthralling concert Saturday night by reaching back to “Lord of the Starfields,” a 1976 song that served as an invocation for what was to come. Sung in praise of the “universe maker” and “sower of life,” it’s also a prayer, beseeching, in its beautiful refrain, “O Love that fires the sun/ Keep me burning.”

And burn Cockburn did, through a generous selection of tunes (nearly three hours’ worth, with intermission) from his nearly 40-year canon, a mix of personal and political song-poems that all come from places few songwriters dare to explore. At concert’s end, a thrilled audience of about 500 gave him three clamorous standing ovations, after each of which he returned for a three-song encore set.

Dressed in baggy black denims and loose black shirt, Cockburn looked fit, his tanned face—he recently returned from Baghdad—made to appear darker by his short white hair and clipped white goatee.

Joining him on stage was Julie Wolf, a slip of a woman with short, boyish black hair and a rich, warm voice. Ensconced behind a bank of electronic keyboard instruments, she alternated between piano and organ, as well as a number of programmed percussion loops, to augment Cockburn’s guitar.

The sound was surprisingly full. Even Cockburn’s fans sometimes forget how good a player he is. He has an amazing ability to pick out a complex melody line with his middle fingers while strumming a rhythm line with his thumb—and singing at the same time! With Wolf providing judicious background vocals and lustrous, rhythmic keyboard fills, the two musicians sounded like four.

Vocally Cockburn was in fine fetter, and he got stronger as the evening went on. His voice isn’t a “pretty” instrument, but it’s powerful and pliant and like Bob Dylan’s it suits his songs.

Yes, the songs. Cockburn’s are uniquely powerful statements. I know of no songwriter, for instance, who feels the world’s suffering the way he does. He insists on confronting it, even traveling to the sources—Baghdad is the latest—to witness it up close and personal.

Where’s the love? Cockburn is forever asking. Why do we do these terrible things to each other and to the Earth? “What does it take for the heart to explode into stars?” he asks, almost plaintively. “One day we’ll wake to remember how lovely we are.”

That’s from “Wait No More,” which is off his latest CD, You’ve Never Seen Everything. He sang it Saturday night, as well as another song off the album, “Postcards from Cambodia,” a spoken-word piece about the killing fields that evokes mountains of human skulls that “whisper, as if from a great distance, of pain…” So much death, Cockburn sings in the achingly beautiful refrain, is “too big for anger, it’s too big for blame,” and all he can do is pray: “So I bow down my head,/ say a prayer for us all./ That we don’t fear the spirit/ when it comes to call.”

Like a bodhisattva, Bruce Cockburn wants us to wake up and realize our beautiful holy nature. He sings of transcendence, of finding light in the darkness, beauty in the ugliness, love amid the anger, greed and violence. Here’s a stanza from 1991’s "Mighty Trucks of Midnight," which he also sang: "Wave a flag, wave the bible, wave your sex or your business degree/ Whatever you want—but don’t wave that thing at me/ The tide of love can leave your prizes scattered/ But when you get to the bottom it’s the only thing that matters." Indeed.