Media

2018

May 2018 
Published in Sojourners


Dangerous Angels - Bruce Cockburn’s long, prophetic musical pilgrimage
by Brian J. Walsh

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IF YOU WRESTLE WITH ANGELS, you will end up with a limp. When you struggle with God, engage the divine in lament-filled argument, cry out to the Creator for justice, hang on and refuse to let go without a blessing, you’ll end up with a posture bent over from the struggle and an uneven gait. Just watch Bruce Cockburn come onstage and you’ll see what I mean.

Known for hits such as “Wondering Where the Lions Are” (from the album Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws), “Rocket Launcher,” and “Lovers in a Dangerous Time” (both from Stealing Fire), Cockburn’s evocative lyrics, exquisite guitar virtuosity, and unique blend of folk, jazz, and rock has brought him numerous awards and accolades over the years. More than 30 albums and close to a half century of touring would take its toll on anyone.

But there is more going on in the career of this Canadian singer-songwriter. The quiet Christian spirituality discerned in some of his early work was broken open in the 1980s when he first visited Central America. Revolutions and dirty wars in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala opened his eyes to U.S. imperialism and the oppressive structures of global capitalism. Looking further abroad he became an advocate for ecological justice and the international banning of land mines. Closer to home Cockburn has railed against white nationalism married to the Religious Right while also passionately embracing the cause of Indigenous justice.

We haven’t heard much from Cockburn over the last few years. Writing his 2014 memoir, Rumours of Glory, took up so much creative energy that songwriting dried up for a while. But the muse returned, and the result is a new album, evocatively titled Bone on Bone: A reference on one level to the arthritis that afflicts Cockburn (though his guitar playing is still stunning), but perhaps more so to the wear and tear of a life of pilgrimage and a spirituality of resistance. A life of wrestling with angels.

No wonder he sings of an “aching in my hipbone” - that’s what happens when you contend with angels.

A price is paid for deeply engaging the world’s suffering, seeing what is just beyond the range of normal sight, and bearing witness. Walter Brueggemann writes that prophets offer “symbols that are adequate to confront the horror and massiveness of the experience that evokes numbness” as they “speak metaphorically but concretely about the real deathliness that hovers over us and gnaws within us.” The prophets, and their poetic singer-songwriter descendants, shake us awake when the powers-that-be prefer us to sleep. Many have recognized Bruce Cockburn as a prophet, even if he would demur at such a description.

When gloom and danger descend on the affairs of humanity, the dimming light can lull us to sleep. But in one of his most memorable lyrics, Cockburn sings that we’ve “got to kick at the darkness ’til it bleeds daylight.” One interpretation of this 1984 song, “Lovers in a Dangerous Time,” is that the evils done in Central America by the Reagan administration required aggressive resistance. In “Santiago Dawn” (World of Wonders), he dreams of the dawning of liberation in Pinochet’s Chile as the “creatures of the dark, in disarray / fall before the morning light.”

But Cockburn knows that externalizing evil thoughts and deeds, projecting them onto our opponents, is too cheap. We are all “hooked on a dark dream” (“Dweller by a Dark Stream,” Mummy Dust). In “The Whole Night Sky” (The Charity of Night), Cockburn sings, “derailed and desperate / how did I get here / hanging from this high wire / by the tatters of my faith.” Like a psalmist he confesses, “look, see my tears / they fill the whole night sky.”

But angels also move through the night. “Sunset is an angel weeping / holding out a bloody sword / no matter how I squint I cannot / make out what it’s pointing toward” (“Pacing the Cage,” The Charity of Night). Weeping over the violence of the day. Weeping, perhaps, in anticipation of the night. The artist cannot discern the meaning of the bloody sword. Later in the song Cockburn sings, “Sometimes the best map will not guide you / You can’t see what’s round the bend / Sometimes the road leads through dark places / Sometimes the darkness is your friend.” Perhaps that angel will reveal itself more fully after the sun has gone down.

Cockburn is right that we need to “kick at the darkness.” But kicking at the darkness without wrestling with angels, without contesting the state of the world with the Creator, is self-defeating human bravado. Cockburn knows this. No wonder he sings of an “aching in my hipbone” (“Open,” You’ve Never Seen Everything). That’s what happens when you contend with angels.

A price is paid for deeply engaging the world's suffering, seeing what is just beyond the range of normal sight, and bearing witness.

Now a denizen of the U.S., this Canadian singer-songwriter opens his new album self-reflectively with “States I’m In.” Old themes return as the song begins with the setting sun, a “curtain going up on the night time shadow play.” We are taken through a dark night of the soul replete with distorted reality, obsession, delusion, frustration, and vulnerability. But the night is not endless. Indeed, in the last verse we hear of “structures of darkness that the dawn corrodes / into the title montage of a new episode / whisper wells up from the deeps untrod / overthrows its channel and spreads abroad.” Whispers, rumors, dawn bursting forth. Kind of what we need these days, isn’t it? A new episode that will break the depressing monotony of what plays out on our screens and Twitter feeds.

There is deep spirituality on this album. Playing off the 13th century hymn “Stabat Mater,” Cockburn takes his place beside Mary, bearing witness to the cross. But “Stab at Matter” takes an apocalyptic turn as he bears witness to a world still hanging on that cross: “you got lamentation / you got dislocation / sirens wailing and the walls come down.” But there is hope in these falling walls. “You got transformation / thunder shaking / seal is broken and the spirit flies.” The empire might be imploding and the temples of our civic religion trembling, but all is a sign that “the Lord draws nigh.”

Some listeners will hear echoes of both Cockburn’s more explicitly Christian imagery of the ’70s together with the political edge of his repertoire from the ’80s on. But this is a political and environmental spirituality tried and tested by life on the road, the life of pilgrimage: temptations, dead ends, and miraculous moments of light and hope.

Whispers, rumors, dawn bursting forth. Kind of what we need these days, isn’t it?

Not surprisingly, there have been angels: “forty years of days and nights—angels hovering near / kept me moving forward though the way was far from clear” (“Forty Years in the Wilderness”). But this time the angels speak: “And they said / take up your load / run south to the road / turn to the setting sun / sun going down / got to cover some ground / before everything comes undone.” In this unspeakably beautiful song, Cockburn bears witness to the journey. You may be limping, bearing the scars of the struggle, bent over and tired, but there is another night coming.

You’ve got more ground to cover before it all comes undone. If that were it, some of us just might give up, say our bodies and souls can’t take anymore. But then, almost at the end of the album, Cockburn invites us onto the “Jesus Train.” In this driving gospel song, he sings, “standing on the platform / awed by the power / I feel the fire of love / feel the hand upon my shoulder / saying ‘brother climb aboard’ / I’m on the Jesus train.” Grace, my friends, pure grace. Can’t walk anymore? Are you derailed and desperate? Then get on board the train to the City of God.

Bruce Cockburn makes no pretense of being a spiritual guide, prophet, or even a conductor on the Jesus train. He’s simply bearing witness as a limping sojourner who is good company on this pilgrimage called Christian faith.

Brian J. Walsh is a Christian Reformed campus minister at the University of Toronto, adjunct theology professor, and author of several books, including Kicking at the Darkness: Bruce Cockburn and the Christian Imagination.


April 26, 2018
Stowe Today

Bruce Cockburn Channels Yeats
by Caleigh Cross

Looking out a hotel room window at a set of train tracks is apropos for Bruce Cockburn.

“There is a certain romance to that,” he allows.

Not just because he’s built a lifelong career on folk music, a genre that carries itself across steel tracks and rainy city streets at night, but because to Cockburn, the world is at a crossroads right now.

To Cockburn, the world is falling apart, and its future is slouching toward Bethlehem to be born.

“I don’t think that one should infer therefore that it actually is falling apart. That’s just how it feels. I can’t separate the thought processes that go with that notion from what might be the emotional impact of getting old. The world is falling apart for all of us one day,” said Cockburn, 72.

That feeling is threaded through the 11 tracks on “Bone on Bone,” the album the Canadian artist released last year after a six-year hiatus, during which he wrote a memoir, “Rumours of Glory.”

“When you reach a certain age, that falling apart, or at least your departure from that world, it looms larger on the horizon,” Cockburn said.

Even the album’s title is an acknowledgement that the center cannot hold — it refers to osteoarthritis, the condition that’s made it more painful for Cockburn to play his guitar as he’s gotten older.

As he sees more and more artistic greats racked up in the obituaries, he’s thought more about the kind of world from which he’ll one day fall away, he said.

“I can’t separate that from the idea that the world is coming apart. Having said that, I think that there is a very good chance that things are not going to make sense or be good in the world for a long time to come, and I’m not saying it’s the end of the world,” but “certainly the world that we grew up with is undergoing massive change, environmentally, politically, socially. There’s a lot of change going on,” Cockburn said.

“It’s moving very fast. I don’t think people are, I don’t think we as a species are keeping up with the pace of what we’ve thrown ourselves into,” he said.

Cockburn has historically been unafraid to take on topics such as pipelines, governmental hypocrisy and the way people live in his music.

His song “Café Society,” the fourth track on “Bone on Bone,” depicts lamentations of people in posh coffee shops bemoaning the headlines they read.

Something Cockburn doesn’t want to talk about? The President of the United States.

“Everybody has opinions about Donald Trump, to the point where it really doesn’t mean anything to express those views” unless they’re contributing to a meaningful discussion, Cockburn said. “People go on about his hands and how long his tie is. Who gives a shit? I haven’t talked about him because I think he gets enough attention. I don’t feel the need to write anything about him.”

“There’s no law that says anybody has to write songs about any particular topic. It’s just in your heart to write. If you don’t write what’s in your heart,” artists aren’t being genuine, Cockburn said, and music written that way won’t resonate.

A handful of the songs on “Bone on Bone” deal with Cockburn’s spirituality. He has an unwavering belief in God, and says he relies on it.

But he doesn’t think anybody’s faith should have a place in lawmaking.

“Your relationship with God is an individual thing. It’s how you personally are plugged into the cosmos. … The church doesn’t have the right to tell the government what laws to make.”

A belief that “there will be something that continues, and my relationship with God will be a meaningful part of where that is when I die” helps Cockburn navigate a world that’s shifted around him, and any outward expression of that should be loving.

“Our job is to love each other. That’s it. That’s all,” Cockburn said.

He’s been along the Route 100 corridor before, and is looking forward to playing for Stowe audiences at Spruce Peak Performing Arts Center Sunday.

“I’m really looking forward to being back in Vermont,” Cockburn said.


April 17, 2018
Style Weekly

Canadian Musician Bruce Cockburn Reflects on Awards, Political Songwriting and Faith
by James Toth

Bruce Cockburn was woke before many of us were born.

Throughout an enormously successful career spanning almost 50 years, 33 albums, a DVD, and an autobiography, the Canadian icon has used his music to advance humanitarian causes and support social change.

Back when pop radio was dominated by songs about uptown girls, Caribbean queens and wearing sunglasses at night, the politically outspoken Cockburn was writing controversial songs about imperialism and refugee camps. His latest album, "Bone on Bone," released in September, finds him comfortably taking on the role of elder statesman, his voice a little growlier but his writing and performing sharper than ever.

Style Weekly: Congratulations on your 13th Juno Award. Do career milestones still mean something to you?

Cockburn: They never really did. I like getting the attention that the awards bring, and as a measure of the fact that people are still paying attention after all this time. But I can't say that the work I do is done with the aim of getting awards. (Laughs.)

Your songs have often been very political, even during periods when it was considered unfashionable to sing about causes. We're at a cultural moment in which artists feel more comfortable than ever speaking out against social injustice. What's changed?

Circumstances. But the music doesn't go away. It does come and go slightly according to fashion, but the serious songwriters that take on issues have always been doing that. You could always go to coffeehouses or little bars and hear people singing songs about causes. Right now because of circumstances and general level of horror, there's a lot of room for that.

The lyrics to "False River" read very much like a poem, and you also have a song on the new record that is a kind of posthumous collaboration with Canadian poet Al Purdy. How important is poetry to you?

Very important. I discovered a love of poetry when I was in the sixth grade and it never left, and the way I choose to write my lyrics is very much influenced by the poetry I've read, and by what I've drawn from it in terms of putting words together. Al Purdy was a great discovery because I was aware of him for some time as part of the Canadian scene, but I never got into his work until the invitation came to write a song for this documentary (2015's "Al Purdy Was Here.") So I got a book of his collected work, and it was incredible. There is something so quintessentially Canadian about Purdy's poetry. It's not obvious in all of his poems, but it's certainly there, and I suppose that may have tapped some nostalgia button in me, having moved to San Francisco. It really resonated.

I know that song in particular was a catalyst for the writing of "Bone on Bone," after experiencing something of a dry spell while writing your memoir, "Rumours of Glory."

Well, it wasn't exactly a dry spell because there was a book, but there was about a four-year period where I didn't write any songs, and at the end of it, I wasn't sure I would write any. Not because I didn't want to, but because I just didn't know if the idea or the motivation or whatever it took to write songs was still there. But it turns out the invitation to do the Al Purdy song kick-started the writing process. Once I'd gotten that together, the rest of them just kind of came, in the old-fashioned way that they do.

You are a Christian living in a time of major societal upheaval. Does the state of the world ever test your faith?

My faith is constantly being tested, but it has more to do with me than the state of the world. It's just my own struggle to look beyond the immediate. For me, faith is a doorway to a relationship. And the door sticks, and that gets in the way of the relationship. And you can say it's a fallen world, and things like that, but the human psyche has this capacity for messing up and embracing a distorted view. We seem to have a better capacity for embracing distortion than we do for embracing clarity. So the struggle is to see things clearly and to me that clarity requires love, and invites love. For me, it's all about that. 


March 25, 2018

Bone On Bone wins the 2018 Juno for Best Contemporary Roots Album of the Year

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February 28, 2018
Wag

The Other Bruce
by 
Gregg Shapiro

Springsteen wasn’t the only important singer/songwriter named Bruce to emerge in the 1970s and continue making music to this day. 

Canadian singer/songwriter Bruce Cockburn, whose debut album was released in 1970, recently released his 33rd album. “Bone on Bone” (True North), Cockburn’s first in six years, is a welcome return for an artist who has managed effortlessly to balance the personal, the political and the spiritual throughout his lengthy career. Additionally, in 2016, Cockburn added author to his list of achievements with the publication of his memoir, “Rumours of Glory.” I spoke with Cockburn in advance of his latest North American concert tour, which will bring him to Daryl’s House in Pawling, next month:


Allmusic.com calls you “Canada’s best-kept secret.” How do you feel about that?

bruce cockburn promo photo daniel keebler

“It’s an old thing. Millennium Records, who was the U.S. company that put out (my album) ‘Dancing In The Dragon’s Jaws’ in 1979 used that as an advertising slogan. These things never go away. I don’t think it applies anymore. At that time, it kind of did. Like any advertising slogan, it suffers from a certain glibness. It kind of had some significance then, but I don’t think it does now. There are areas of the U.S. where I’m not particularly visible or audible, but there are a lot of areas where I am.”

Six years passed between the release of your new album “Bone on Bone” and its predecessor “Small Source of Comfort.” In the “Bone on Bone” CD booklet, you list the years and cities in which each of the 10 songs was written. 

“I’ve done that on all my albums. There was a long hiatus between albums, because I wrote a book. All of the energy that would have gone into songwriting, the creative juice all went into the book. There was that three-year period and then the year or so after the release of ‘Small Source of Comfort,’ where I was touring all the time. There was about four years where I didn’t write anything. At the end of that four years, I was thinking, ‘Maybe I’m a songwriter, maybe I’m not.’ It was a question of waiting to see if the book ‘distraction’ was out of the way, if the song ideas would come and they did, so we have a new album.”

The marvelous Mary Gauthier sings with you on “40 Years in the Wilderness.” How did that come to pass?

“We asked her and she said yes (laughs). That kind of overdub was done at (producer) Colin Linden’s studio in Nashville and Mary lives in Nashville. She happened to be there at the right time. We had a nice afternoon having her.”

The song “Stab At Matter,” which features the San Francisco Lighthouse Chorus, is a play on words on the title of the medieval Roman Catholic hymn “Stabat Mater.” 

“I don’t even know when it started, but at some point I got this bug in my head thinking that the Latin phrase ‘stabat mater,’ which is ‘stand there, Mother’ …means a whole different thing (in English). There seemed to be an invitation in the English to make something out of it. It has this juicy quality to it. The spiritual side of things has always been a focus for me and I wanted to keep it in that realm. It’s not intended as a heavy philosophical statement, but we kind of (make an) exciting thing out of the notion of stabbing at matter. 

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“When one friend of mine first heard it, he thought it was kind of apocalyptic, because it talks about walls coming down, the seal being broken, the trumpet sounds. These are images we associate with the biblical apocalypse. I was thinking more in personal terms, one’s own spiritual state. It’s been my experience that whether you think of it in psychological or spiritual terms or a combination as I guess I do, we’re always invited to break down the structures that we build. If we refuse or ignore that invitation, they will be broken down sooner or later. If they’re not broken down with your complicity, it’s usually traumatic (laughs). ‘Stabbing At Matter’ was ‘Let’s get this sh– out of the way, let’s get down to it.’”

Poets aren’t often the subject of songs, but you pay tribute to Canadian poet Al Purdy in the song “3 Al Purdys.” 

“That was actually the first of the bunch of songs to be written (for the album). I was waiting around for a good idea. I got an invitation from people in Canada, who were making a documentary film about Al Purdy, to contribute a song to the film. I didn’t have an existing song that would be appropriate. I thought, ‘This is great. I’ll say ‘yes’ and, if I get it together, then I do and if I don’t, then I guess I’ll prove to myself that I’m not a songwriter.’ 

“I don’t mean to make it sound so dire, but maybe there were other things I should be looking at. I wasn’t that familiar with Purdy’s work. He’s one of the great Canadian poets and I was aware of his existence. He died in 2000. He spent his youth, in the ’30s, riding the rails back and forth through Canada and became a more settled figure after that. He was a traveler with a sharp eye and a great gift for putting things into words. I was looking at this stuff and I got this image of this homeless guy who was obsessed with Al Purdy. The phrase, ‘I’ll give you three Al Purdys for a $20 bill’ came into my head. I pictured this guy ranting Purdy poems on the street with his cup out. I thought, ‘What else would he say besides Purdy poems?’ That’s what became the song.”

It’s been almost 35 years since the release of your songs “If I Had A Rocket Launcher” and “Lovers In A Dangerous Time,” and we are still living in a dangerous time. As an artist and activist, what are your hopes for the future?

“Oh, boy. (laughs) I hope I survive until my natural death at least. And I hope that my daughters and grandchildren survive. It’s really down to that. Survive in a way that’s recognizable. We can live like cockroaches, or we can have the lives of relative comfort and relative freedom that you and I have grown up with. These are things that should be treasured. It’s not a given to me that our descendants will be able to continue that for long. I hope they do. That’s what we should be thinking about. It blows my mind… the climate change deniers and the business-first mentality…make wild choices based on poor scientific information. Do the science and get it right and then take it seriously. We all need money. We all need to eat. You need to have an economy of sorts in the world, but an economy that’s based on, ‘It’s my right to get everything I want and screw you,’ which is what it is currently, is wrong. That’s self-defeating. 

“You’re not just saying, ‘Screw you’ to your neighbor, who might not be as lucky as you. You’re saying it to future generations, as well. That makes no sense to me. I look at those things and I worry. But I also think there are grounds for hope. If somebody asks me where I get my hope from, I get it from a faith in God and life. I don’t think the God part’s misplaced, but the life part might be (laughs). But I have it anyway. We just have to pay attention, do what we can and then hope after that.”


February 16, 2018

Bruce Cockburn and Band in the Pacific Northwest, USA

Neptune Theatre, Seattle – Sunday 28th January 2018 (800 seats)
Aladdin Theater, Portland - Tuesday 30th January 2018 (600 seats)
Aladdin Theater, Portland – Wednesday 31
st January 2018 (600 seats)

Review by Richard Hoare


The Bruce Cockburn band as a four piece, in support of the Bone On Bone album, started a forty-five date Canadian and US tour shortly after the release of that work on True North in mid-September 2017.  This time Bruce is out on the road with Gary Craig on drums & percussion, John Dymond on bass and John Aaron Cockburn (Bruce’s nephew) on accordion, electric guitar and violin.

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As Ron Miles played wonderful cornet on some of my favourite tracks on Bone On Bone I was apprehensive as to how those numbers would be re-arranged for the tour. At the same time, I was not aware until the tour started that John Aaron Cockburn was also going to play electric guitar and violin.

As the likelihood of Bruce bringing the band to the UK is remote I arranged to visit Daniel Keebler and Jerri Andersen in Snohomish and attended the shows in Seattle and Portland. I have known Daniel and Jerri for over 20 years and we first met in 1997, but this would be the first time we had attended the same shows!

All three shows were sold out. By the time the band reached Seattle they were cooking. Seattle was great, the first Portland show was better, and the second Portland show was even better. Daniel reports that the Grants Pass, Oregon show was outstanding, but we are getting ahead of ourselves!

Bruce selected a diverse set of songs for the tour including 7 or 8 tracks from Bone On Bone. Cockburn has re-arranged the tracks from that album and accentuated a clarity for each number which makes them more accessible. The performances are measured, sedate, tense, full of emotion and some are ratcheted up to unleash a coiled spring at different stages.

Cockburn creates a broad pallet of sound with a wide choice of guitars - six string acoustic, Dobro, twelve string acoustic, six string electric, twelve string electric and a charango.

The stage set up is John Aaron on the left, Bruce centre, John Dymond right, all with mikes for vocal contributions and Gary Craig behind. John Dymond has three electric basses – a 4 string Fender Jazzman, another 4 string and a 5 string.  John Aaron plays a beautiful, majestic accordion, Bruce’s Fender Telecaster guitar and an acoustic violin. Gary Craig has a Yamaha drum kit modified specifically for Bruce’s shows. The unique sound comes from the different tones by having wooden hoops on the toms and Evans Calftone drum heads all around. The sounds are warmer and fatter. The kit is complimented with an array of handpicked cymbals. Then there is a side table of singing bowls and bells, a variety of shakers and tambourines topped off with a gong! All these are played with a variety of sticks, mallets and blast sticks to bring out the different textures. As Gary told me “The idea is to blend these sounds in with the array of guitar tones that Bruce brings to the songs.”   

The band kicked off the gigs with solid renditions of old favourites Tokyo and Lovers In A Dangerous Time, both well received by the crowd. Two songs from Bone On Bone followed with States I’m In, including Gary’s stinging singing bowls and the beautiful, lyrical Forty Days In The Wilderness with John Aaron’s lilting accordion.

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Each night Bruce found a new way to introduce Free To Be, dating from 1977, saying that unfortunately the lyric is still relevant after 40 years. John Dymond played a fine bass emulating the original live Bob Boucher performance.

Bruce played a dobro on Café Society complimented by John Aaron’s accordion and Gary’s brushes on the kit. In concert the lyrics had a new clarity and the pace was less frenetic than on the album.

Peggy’s Kitchen Wall is a crowd pleaser each tour it is revived. This time is no exception and the audience sang along without encouragement. One evening Bruce repeated the back-story which you can also find in his memoir.            

If I Had A Rocket Launcher began with an unfamiliar introduction and was ignited mid-song with guitar interplay between Bruce and John Aaron.

Bruce announced an intermission after the next song, the wonderfully moody Strange Waters, which swaggered and swayed with Craig’s percussive bell string and Dymond on his five string bass. It slowly built until Bruce took flight by letting rip on his six string electric before winding up with a feedback finish.        

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Refreshed Bruce returned to the stage with a dobro for the second set and started with the album title instrumental, Bone On Bone. The concert version was embellished with Gary’s inventive percussion and a rhythm for Cockburn to follow.

Out came the diminutive charango – “It punches above its weight” Bruce interjected at one of the shows, and he was off playing a driving, sparkling Mon Chemin with accordion in tandem. It was one of the most hypnotic tracks off the new album including a long instrumental section.

Cockburn revived Coldest Night Of The Year as an acoustic ballad and the sedate majesty of the new arrangement was enhanced with some fine accordion.

High energy returned with the skiffle rock of Jesus Train and the twin vocals of Bruce and his nephew.

Each night Cockburn disguised the introduction to Wondering Where The Lions Are. At the first Portland show the song was prefaced with the tune to Home, Home on The Range! Bruce signaled the audience to sing but they didn’t need much encouragement!

The relentless, driving, infectious rhythm of False River featured Bruce’s six string acoustic and John Aaron’s accordion.

If A Tree Falls, with its familiar whammy bar and delay, whisked up a storm which was upstaged by the duel between Bruce’s electric guitar and John Aaron’s violin (this instrument’s only appearance at these shows.)

The second set closed with the The Gift, a song from Big Circumstance, rarely heard after the tour for that record. This re-arranged new version was beautifully enhanced with John Aaron’s clipped highlife electric guitar fills. The original book, The Gift, by Lewis Hyde has recently been referenced in Robert Macfarlane’s essay, The Gifts of Reading, now a compact A6 Penguin paperback.

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Each night the audience fetched back the band for some encores. Generally, Bruce kicked off with the audience favourite, Last Night Of The World, before introducing 3 Al Purdys, putting that Canadian poet in context for the crowd. John Aaron’s accordion was featured again, and in place of the cornet coda played by Ron Miles on the album, Gary played a beautiful untypical drum solo. On the second night in Portland Last Night of The World was substituted for the seductive and hypnotic Look How Far, featuring a delightful John Aaron guitar solo.  

The shows were brought to a climax with feedback, distortion and percussion as Stolen Land loomed out of the din with John Aaron’s punctuating electric guitar harmonics. Mid-song Bruce and John Aaron duelled with their guitars before Bruce guided the song to a feedback finale. This both brought the house down and the audience to their feet.

Each of the three nights improved with timing and poise and Bruce was visibly pleased with the audience reaction.

In the sleeve notes to the Small Source of Comfort CD, Cockburn described an unfulfilled vision of music, electric and noisy, with gongs and jackhammers and fiercely distorted guitars. On some of the electric guitar numbers on this tour Bruce channelled the spirits of Tom Waits and Neil Young with Crazy Horse to produce elements of those sounds aided and abetted by the creative force of Gary Craig.

Get out there and experience this tour before it sells out. Bruce is 72 and hot!!

Huge thanks for my trip to Daniel Keebler, Jerri Andersen, Bruce Cockburn and Mary Hoare.                
   
      


February 15, 2018
Aspen Times

Folk legend Bruce Cockburn returns to the Wheeler Opera House
by Andrew Travers

Bruce Cockburn has married his art with activism for more than 50 years as a musician, holding up a mirror to the ills of society and holding nothing back.

This singing poet of outrage and wry humor's best-known songs – 1984's "If I Had a Rocket Launcher," about Guatemalan refugees, and 1979's "Wondering Where the Lions Are," about the threat of nuclear extinction – are relevant as ever today. Over the decades – and 33 albums – Cockburn has used his guitar and his voice in the social justice tradition of folk music.

The prolific legendary Canadian singer and songwriter, now 72 and living in San Francisco, is still on his mission and speaking truth to power. But don't expect him to expel any creative energy on the current occupant of the White House.

"I'm not interested in writing about Donald Trump," Cockburn said in a recent phone interview from a tour stop in Santa Cruz, California. "The whole world is writing about Donald Trump. He lives for attention and I prefer not to give it to him."

But the milieu of this divided, dark moment in American history is certainly present throughout his new album "Bone on Bone." On the standout song "Café Society," for instance, Cockburn offers a grim snapshot of chit-chat in a Peet's coffee shop: "Talk about the tsunamis and the crazies with their guns/And crazy-ass policemen shooting everything that runs."

Cockburn calls it "an appreciation of community, which I think is something we don't get enough of."

On "States I'm In," a play on words, he offers a poetic depiction of the lonely state and the spiritual malaise of contemporary life in these United States.

"In some way it's a summation of my personal history, but it's in the context of what we're in now," he explained.

"States I'm In" was inspired, Cockburn said, by writing his memoir. Published in 2014 as "Rumors of Glory," the book led to a rare break from songwriting for Cockburn and a long (for him) six years between albums. As he worked on the book, he thought it might be the end of his songwriting days.

"It wasn't so much that it made songwriting harder, but all the ideas and energy that would have gone into the songs were going into the book," he explained. "When I was finished, it had been a long time since I'd written a song – much longer than any dry spell I'd experienced before that."

The prose writing and the promotion and the book tour shook up Cockburn's long-held creative routines.

"I wasn't sure if there were going to be any more songs after that," he said. "Sometimes life changes and you're invited to go in new directions. I didn't know if that would be one of those times."

Thankfully for his loyal fans, new songs started coming to Cockburn soon after the noise around the book quieted. The result is "Bone on Bone" and a tour that brings Cockburn back to the Wheeler Opera House on Saturday night.

On the tour, he's playing material from the new record alongside songs from throughout his career, with a full band behind him. The bigger, harder rocking band is new for Aspen. Cockburn has made regular stops here since 2003, but has mostly performed in a solo acoustic setup or with a trio.

Despite his arthritic hands, Cockburn still works magic on six- and 12-string guitars. Looking ahead, he's hoping to put together another album of instrumental music, following up 2005's all-instrumental "Speechless" (the title track on "Bone on Bone" is also a classic instrumental folk-jazz fusion) and he hopes to do a covers record at some point.

Cockburn said he's not much engaged with the current landscape of the music industry – he has a six-year-old daughter and "since she was born I haven't paid much attention to anything but being a dad." But from what he picks up about the scene while playing at folk festivals, he observes a new generation of singers and songwriters carrying on his legacy of political songwriting and sees creative communities dividing along ideological lines.

"I see the polarization that is the main problem today in American life is also present in the music world," he said. "So if you hang out around folkies you're going to hear a lot of political stuff. If you're hanging out around country musicians, you're not going to hear much and if you do it'll be on the other side."



February 14, 2018
(Interview date: January 18, 2018)
The Rumpus

Something Bigger And Of Greater Value: Talking With Bruce Cockburn
by M.D. Dunn


At age seventy-two, after fifty years of recording, Canadian songwriter/guitar wizard Bruce Cockburn has produced some of the best music of his career on September’s Bone on Bone. Over thirty-three albums, Cockburn has offered fearless commentary on political issues, meditations on spirituality, and hundreds of brilliant songs that defy categorization.

He is perhaps best known for two midcareer hits, 1979’s “Wondering Where the Lions Are” and 1984’s “If I Had a Rocket Launcher.” These songs, as different as they are from each other, are representative of Cockburn’s sprawling catalog. “Lions,” with its reggae-influenced rhythms is a showcase for his unique fingerpicking style, and “Rocket Launcher” demonstrates a concern for social justice that runs throughout his songs. (Indeed, he brought politics into his art when musicians were encouraged to avoid “causes.” His involvement in the anti-landmine campaign helped bring about the Ottawa Treaty, in which 122 nations agreed to abstain from using the weapons.)

Admired by musicians and activists around the world, he is royalty in his country of birth. Yet, for all the critical acclaim, Cockburn is a humble working musician with a generous sense of humor. Of his legendary status, Bruce Cockburn has said: “You can be a legend, or you can be present. You don’t get to be both.”

In a recent interview, conducted over telephone, Cockburn discusses his music, songwriting, and the benefits of not selling out.

***

The Rumpus: How are things in California? From the outside, it looks terrifying.

Bruce Cockburn: San Francisco is such an anomaly in every sense: culturally, weather-wise, and in terms of its sociopolitical structure. As a city, it’s kind of all by itself, with the illusion of self-sufficiency. You’re insulated from a lot of the weirdness. One day, we won’t be. There will be that big earthquake, and it’ll be our turn.

Rumpus: Bone on Bone is a beautiful album. It gets more interesting with each listen. After about two plays, I could remember most of the lyrics, which says something about the strength of the writing.

Cockburn: I find it surprising you could remember because I have my difficulty with them. It took me a while to get it. I still struggle with the spoken word parts on “Three Al Purdys.” Of course, they are not my words, they are his. But it’s always touch and go if the lyrics are not just simple rhyming couplets.

Rumpus: That is such a cool song. Having Al Purdy’s poems “Transient” and “In the Beginning Was the Word” with verses from your narrator [a homeless performer of Purdy’s poems offering “three Al Purdys for a twenty-dollar bill”] is remarkable storytelling. Your verses in the middle fit perfectly with the verses from Purdy’s poems. My only complaint is that there are only two Al Purdys in a song called “Three Al Purdy’s.”

Cockburn: Well, I didn’t get the twenty dollars. Nobody was forthcoming with the twenty-dollar bill.

Rumpus: Your playing and lyrical approaches seem to change with every album. Bone on Bone might be the album that catches your live sound most accurately. It doesn’t sound like anything else you’ve done, but has some of the paranoia of The Trouble With Normal, with the roots music feel of something like The Further Adventures Of.

Cockburn: That’s interesting you say that. My young daughter used to insist on listening to my stuff in the car. Every time we got in the car, she’d say, “Daddy, can we listen to you?” So, I’d be like, “Oh, okay. Are you sure you wouldn’t like to listen to someone else?” A fan had given me a three-CD set of her “Best of” choices covering the 70s, 80s, and 90s. I ended up listening to the 70s disc of those while driving my daughter to preschool. There were a lot of songs on there that I wouldn’t have thought to collect and others that I was surprised were missing. It was nice to hear how those records sounded after all these years. They are all very different.

The albums from the 70s sound very different from the ones that came after, and Inner City Front. Those were all Gene Martynec productions. There is something about the way we made those albums. I didn’t have a sense of it at the time, I don’t think. But it was interesting to listen to them. That period and that way of recording definitely impacted the songwriting and the approach to Bone on Bone. We didn’t attempt to reproduce those albums, and I wouldn’t remember enough about what Gene did in the studio to be able to reproduce them anyway. But my attitude going in was I wanted to get something like that feel back, the less structured, less produced kind of feel. I think in the 80s we got very far away from [a stripped down] feel. It came back since the T Bone Burnett albums [Nothing But a Burning Light, Dart to the Heart] in the early 90s, which were, in spirit, more like the 70s albums. I haven’t really bothered thinking it through enough to articulate it well, but I do recall thinking I wanted to make an album like those albums.

Rumpus: Did you record Bone on Bone live with the rhythm section?

Cockburn: Yeah, everything. We had a few overdubs, but the songs were recorded complete with everyone playing.

Rumpus: Do you record on tape?

Cockburn: I think we did on this, pretty sure. I didn’t take much of a hand in the production. I used to worry about that more in the 90s when Colin Linden first started producing my stuff. I insisted on being co-producer at least in name so that I would have veto power over things, or more than just the power of veto is what I was thinking. But after a couple of albums, it was obvious that Colin was doing all the work and so should get the credit. It’s a process in which I have a great involvement anyway, but I trust Colin’s expertise and Colin’s ears and don’t think much about the technology end of it. The last bunch of albums we’ve done both digitally and with tape.

Rumpus: It captures your live sound more faithfully than many of your studio albums.

Cockburn: The studio was great. It’s a studio called Prairie Sun near Santa Rosa, an hour north of San Francisco. It’s an old chicken ranch. The studio is in the old farm buildings. The smell of chickens is mercifully long gone, but the atmosphere is great. And the sound in these old buildings is good.

Rumpus: You’ve said the title of the new album is a reference to arthritis. In other interviews you’ve said there are pieces you can no longer play. Have you had to adjust songs so that you can play them?

Cockburn: In one case. It’s partly arthritis and partly just wear-and-tear. The cartilage is gone from using the joints too much. A song like “Peggy’s Kitchen Wall” took me a long time to learn to play again because the shape of my hand has changed. The fingers don’t point in the same way. I don’t have quite as much reach as I did. There’s a riff in the original version of “Peggy’s Kitchen Wall” that was just a millimeter beyond my reach. There is one note in that riff that I couldn’t get to, so I stopped playing the song. Then I figured out a different fingering and tuning to be able to play it again. That song’s back in the repertoire.

It’s more common for me to just not play those songs. For example, I can’t play “Foxglove.” Not that I particularly miss it, because I’ve played it a lot, and there are other songs I want to play more. The rolling three-finger movement on the right hand is something I don’t do so well now, so songs that involve that tend to get left out.

Rumpus: Has the limitation opened new possibilities on the guitar?

Cockburn: It’s maybe changed the emphasis a little bit. The new album is more bluesy than most of my albums. The guitar, at least, is approached that way. It’s more about getting into a mindset than it is about the hands at this stage. I mean, I can still play most of what I want to play. I haven’t had to make a major enough adjustment for it to affect the songwriting.

Rumpus: That right-hand technique of yours with the extended pinkie, like a shaka sign, is painful to execute and seems to concentrate the movements of the second joints of the first, second, and third fingers. To hold that position for any length of time is painful. I can only imagine the damage sixty years of playing that way would cause.

Cockburn: The worst part is the thumb. One time, someone wrote a review of a show in which they observed that my guitar playing was like a bunch of events happening, held together by my right thumb. When I read that I thought, Jeez. He’s right. If anything happens to my thumb, I’m screwed. This was not that long ago, maybe ten years ago, but I could see this portent: there were going to be issues. And I’d never thought about it before that. Sure enough, there are issues. But, so far, I’ve been getting away with it.

Rumpus: How much do you play when you’re not on the road?

Cockburn: Less than I should, and less than I want to. I am busy at home the way our lives are set up at this point, with my wife’s working hours and my daughter’s school hours, and bedtime hours, etc., etc. I have to fit my playing time into a relatively short day, and still get the errands done. Ideally, I’d be playing four to six hours a day. I’m lucky to get in ten to twelve hours a week. I catch it when I can.

Rumpus: Are your songs usually fully formed when you go into the studio?

Cockburn: They are pretty much done. I don’t think about recording until I have a body of songs that feels like it’s ready to record. There are occasions when there have been revisions in the studio, or when I hear something back that doesn’t work, and I have to figure something else out. But that’s not true of this album. All the songs were as you hear them.

Rumpus: Do you change strings before every performance?

Cockburn: I used to, but not anymore. I change guitars so often during a show that the strings last longer. Back in the day, when it was one guitar through the whole show, I changed them before every show. But now, with everything plugged in, the age of the strings is much less an issue than it used to be. Your sound isn’t dependent on the string singing into a microphone.

Rumpus: What is the story about the backdrop you use live?

Cockburn: It’s just a piece of camouflage netting. It’s probably going to be retired after this tour. We’ve been using it a lot.

Rumpus: Is it military issue?

Cockburn: Yeah. It’s somebody’s military. I don’t know whose. I don’t think it was Canadian-issue, maybe it was. I got it in a surplus store somewhere.

Rumpus: When your first album came out in 1970, you entered into the height of the music industry. I know it was different in Canada, where the scene was still developing, and Bernie Finkelstein [Cockburn’s manager and one of the architects of the Canadian music industry], and True North Records, as well as government-regulated quotas for Canadian content were helping with that. And you enjoyed a couple of decades early on of that abundance, but it all seems to be gone now. When I was a kid, we would complain about musicians who “sold out,” meaning that they had a commercial success with a questionable song, or that they sold their songs to corporations. But you never sold out. Was it for the lack of offers?

Cockburn: No, it wasn’t, actually. The offers were never numerous, but there were many requests over the years to use songs. I remember getting an offer from a major credit card company that wanted to use something. This would have been in the 80s, when my songs were getting quite a bit of airplay. I remember thinking the money they offered was insulting. Never mind the issue of selling out, which would have been enough for me to say no, especially to a credit card. But they just offered this crappy, token sum of money for the use of a song in an ad. Once you put a song in an ad, you could never sing it again. I mean, back then! Nowadays, you do. Now, those are the songs that become hits for the people who do that.

In my aesthetic/ethical frame of reference that would mean the death of a song. If I am going to kill a song on your behalf, you’d better give me good money for it.

Bernie and I talked about this way back, and we talked about it every time any kind of publishing deal came up. When I sold my publishing before moving to the States, for example, there was a stipulation in the contract that the songs can’t be used for political or commercial purposes without my permission. So, if a non-profit wants to use a song, odds are we’ll give them permission, depending on what they are trying to convince people of, I suppose.

But the concept of “selling out” is an outdated one anyway. It might come back. It isn’t an outdated idea for me personally. I still feel very strongly about it. Looking around, the sensibility that taught me to think that way is not readily noticeable anymore. Young people are growing up with a different idea how to do it.

Rumpus: Do you think that is because there is not as much money available through record sales? That sales allowed musicians to turn down commercial offers?

Cockburn: That would probably exacerbate it, I’m not sure. But I think people just dropped the idea. You don’t hear anybody talking about it. As you pointed out, back in the day, people did talk about [the commodification of music]. You’d take somebody to task for having done that, or for considering doing it. You’d go to great lengths to avoid the appearance of selling out, even if you weren’t. It’s just not on people’s radar now.

Rumpus: I am very proud that in thirty-six years of writing songs, I haven’t “sold out.” Then again, I haven’t had the opportunity to sell out, so I don’t know how I’d stand up to the temptation.

Cockburn: [Laughs] Faced with a mountain of debt and a tempting offer, who knows? It’s a judgment call that each of us has to make for ourselves. It’s not fair to pass judgment. Somebody who sets out to be a commercial songwriter, whose goal is to have hits and make money—I mean, I don’t understand that mindset, and I’ve never subscribed to it—okay, it’s fine. If that’s what they want to do, more power to them. They should go do that. We should just treat each other in a friendly and respectful manner and leave it at that.

If that concern comes back, it’ll be because the artists are sickened that everything is about money. There is a strong strain in the human spirit and psyche that wants something bigger and of greater value than money. Those kinds of feelings get expressed in the arts more readily than anywhere else. I suspect there will be a pendulum swing at some point away from the intense materialism we are bombarded with right now. It may come from the economic bottom who are getting screwed anyway.

***

Photographs of Bruce Cockburn © Daniel Keebler.

M.D. Dunn is a musician, writer, and educator from Northern Ontario, Canada. Find him online at www.mddunn.com. More from this author →


February 14, 2018
Colorado Springs Independent

Bruce Cockburn on politics, poetry, and pop radio’s least likely hit
By Bill Forman


The traditional lullabies that parents sing to their children have been known to include disturbing images: babies in cradles falling from trees, children who fear dying in their sleep, that kind of thing. But none of them, as far as we know, have involved assault weapons.

Until recently, that is, when singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn was contacted by a fellow Canadian who'd made international headlines last October.

A revered singer-songwriter, Cockburn is best known here in the States for his unlikely mid-'80s hit, "If I had a Rocket Launcher." According to Rumours of Glory, his 2014 autobiography, Cockburn had been visiting Guatemalan refugee camps, and after returning to a hotel room, was in tears as he wrote the song. While many who've heard the song may not be familiar with its backstory, there was no overlooking its infamous last line: "If I had a rocket launcher / Some son-of-a-bitch would die."

"I was forwarded an email from Joshua Boyle, who I don't know at all, but he's the guy who was rescued from captivity in Afghanistan just recently with his wife and three kids," says Cockburn of the unusual interaction. "He's a Canadian guy who is married to an American woman, and they were captives of the Taliban for five years. And during that time, he sang 'Rocket Launcher' to his kids as a lullaby. They were just toddlers, so they wouldn't get what the song's about at all. But you could get what he was feeling, though — or, I can surmise at least, you know?"

Over the course of his career, Cockburn has won 12 Junos awards — the Canadian equivalent to the Grammy. Last year, he was inducted into the Canadian Hall of Fame, an honor that coincided with the September release of his 33rd album, Bone on Bone.

While it's been largely underplayed in his music, Cockburn turned to Christianity early in his career, and, apart from a period in which he became fed up with the intolerance of the evangelical right, he still identifies that way today. A rock musician whose music has incorporated elements of folk, jazz and world music, he's been hailed as one of contemporary music's most gifted guitarists, yet sings and plays in an understated way that complements lyrics that can be both poetic and polemical.

"On the coastline, where the trees shine, in the unexpected rain / There's the carcass of a tanker, in the centre of a stain," he sings on the new album's poignant "False River," while other songs show a wry sense of humor that surfaces from time to time: "Café society, a sip of community / Café society, misery loves company / Hey, it's a way, to start the day."

Taken as a whole, the album is musically engaging and, in its own way, spiritually uplifting, something that will come as no surprise for his legion of fans. It also showcases his exceptional skills as a guitarist, as well as an occasionally more gritty side to his vocal style.

Cockburn's upcoming Boulder show, which will feature his full band, comes well into a more than 50-date tour, no small feat for a musician who last year turned 72. In the following interview, he talks about making the new album, how "Rocket Launcher" relates to Trump's America, and thinking of himself as a singer-songwriter until proven otherwise.

Indy: Reading your book, I think I learned more about certain aspects of the American experience than from my high school history classes...

Bruce Cockburn: That's not all that surprising. [Laughs.]

That's basically my question: American curriculums leave out topics like John Foster Dulles and the United Fruit Company. Are you still surprised, ever, by what we don't know in the States about our own history?

No, not really. But I don't think the States is worse than most countries in that respect. I think that every country, and every society, has an image of itself that it wants to perpetuate. And I don't even think it's that wrong, as long as the information is out there for people that want to find it. If you start suppressing information in a vigorous way, then it becomes something else.

I think Americans look inward more than they look outwards, in that people think, "Oh, I was going to go on a trip but I don't have to go anywhere outside of the United States to get anything I want by way of a holiday." And it's kind of true — if you're looking for a beach or if you're looking for a ski experience — I mean, it's a country that has a lot of stuff to offer.

There's a line in Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman where she's writes about the small Alabama town the book is set in. "If you did not want much," she writes, "it was plenty." Would you say that summarizes part of the American thought process?

Yeah, although it's changed over the years. I remember how my family would all get in the car and drive from Ottawa down to Daytona Beach in Florida for Easter holidays. It took three days back then to do that drive, and I remember stopping at a gas station in Georgia, and the guy pumping the gas, a middle-aged man, said, "Where are you all from?" And my dad said, "Well, we're Canadians, we're from Canada." "Canada? What state is that in?" So I mean, that's in the '50s, right? It's changed, I don't think you'd get that now. Now people are too aware of hockey and the Blue Jays. And the NAFTAs.

How do you think the response to "If I Had a Rocket Launcher" would be different if you released it today? I mean, that song was in heavy rotation on a lot of American stations, but the line "some son-of-a-bitch would die" is a little extreme. I could see that being quietly banned now.

I could see that, but I wouldn't assume it automatically either, because I thought it would be banned back then. Like when it was suggested that it be sent out to radio stations as a single, or as the lead track from the album, or whatever it was, I said, "Nobody is going to play that, like, this is ridiculous." And yet we know what happened.

But the thing is, I think actually, if anything, it might even be more popular now, because everybody's mad. I mean everybody is overtly angry now. And back then, it wasn't that so many people cared about Guatemala — I mean, there were those who did — but I think a lot of people liked it because it was an expression of outrage, of a sense of what they would feel as their own rage at life.

bruce cockburn promo photo daniel keebler

Yeah, as long as you didn't listen to the words.

Well right, but people don't, and I know intelligent people who have had conversations where they'll go, "Oh you mean you're supposed to listen to the lyrics?" It's like, "Yeah!"

But you can't sing along as easily on the verses.

Yeah, exactly. Although I did play it at a festival in England, in a circus tent with 2,000 people in it, and they all sang along with it. And hearing 2,000 people sing "some son-of-a-bitch would die" is a very disturbing thing. It wasn't meant to be a sing-along, but there they were singing. And these were 2,000 Christians, as well.

A few days ago, I saw the news that Energy Transfer Partners — the same company building the pipeline through Standing Rock — has been given a final go-ahead, after two years, to run a pipeline through Louisiana's Cajun country.

Yeah, yeah. It's a disaster.

Were there specific circumstances that inspired you to write the song "False River"?

There were, but they're not what the song describes. It's a composite of images having to do with that kind of stuff, but the trigger for the song was a request from a woman named Yvonne Blomer. She's the poet laureate of Victoria, British Colombia, and she put a book together of environmental-related poetry as part of the movement specifically against the pipeline that they want to put right close to Vancouver there, across the Rockies. There's another one further north that's also very contentious and probably will, sooner or later, go through. I mean, eventually they usually win. But there's a lot of opposition to put both of these in. So she asked if I would contribute a poem. And I don't really write poems, but I thought, well, maybe I can do this?

All you have to do is leave out the music and that makes it a poem.

Well, that sometimes is true, and I think in that case, it was. Most of the times if I were writing for the page, it would look a little different, because you do a lot of things for rhythmic reasons you wouldn't necessarily do for the visual on a page. But, in my mind, when I was writing that song, I had a kind of hip-hop rhythm, which informed the pacing of the lyrics. So it was written as a poem for that collection, but it was obvious to me, even before I finished it, that I was probably going to try to make a song out of it. And so I did so.

Speaking of poetry, can you tell me a bit about "3 Al Purdy." How you ended up writing a song about a homeless guy going around shouting his poetry.

Well this was another one — it's weird — this album has two anomalies in it that were both the result of requests to write songs for other projects. In this case, there were people making a documentary film about [Canadian poet] Al Purdy, and they asked if I would contribute a song to the film. And I had not written anything for years, because I was too busy working on my book and that soaked up all the creative juices, and there was nothing left for songwriting. So when the book was done, I'm sitting there kind of going, "Well, am I a songwriter now or not?" It had been four years since I wrote a song and that's the longest it's ever been since I started.

I mean I was kind of figuring I would still keep thinking of myself as a songwriter until proven otherwise. But I wondered about that, and I was kind of sitting and waiting for an idea to come. So this invitation to contribute a song came. I didn't know very much about Al Purdy myself, so I went out and I bought his collected works, and he's a knockout. I mean he's just a great poet, and quintessentially Canadian in a way, but he also transcends that.

And right away I thought of the phrase "I'll give you three Al Purdys for a $20 bill" coming out of the mouth of somebody. And then I thought, who would that come out of the mouth of? And I pictured this guy with his hair blowing in the wind and a scruffy beard. And he's kind of an older guy, and he's out there on the street ranting out Purdy's poetry for money. So the spoken-word parts of the song are quotations from Al Purdy, and the rest of it I wrote in the voice of that guy.

A number of your vocals on the new album feel bluesier than usual, even though the music is still kind of all over the place. How do you view this album musically, especially in light of the 30 or so that came before it?

I don't spend much time thinking about that kind of comparison, but it's kind of where I'm at now — whatever that means. The lyrics invite the music for the most part. There are other decision-making factors, but a set of lyrics will tell me whether they want to be performed on an electric guitar or an acoustic guitar, or whether they want to have a certain kind of rhythm. So a song like "Café Society" just wanted to be bluesy.

So after this tour, what will your next recording project be?

There are no plans to record right away — this album hasn't run its course and I'm still feeling good about singing these songs — so that's it for the time being. But two things that we've talked about doing as long-range, somewhere-down-the-road projects are another instrumental album. We did one called Speechless a few years ago that was a mixture of new pieces and previously recorded ones, and we might do a volume two of that, which I would quite like to do. And I'd also, if I don't die first, like to eventually do an album of other people's songs. But I don't know.

Any artists in particular?

No, lots of different people. People that I admired. Dylan would be there, and Elvis would be there, and whatever other things I might dredge up from the depths.

Photo: Daniel Keebler


February 13, 2018
Toronto Globe & Mail

Veteran sound man Jon Erickson still gets excited working with rock icons
by Brad Wheeler

IMG 2525 daniel keebler 2018

With the series Applause, Please, The Globe and Mail recognizes the efforts of dedicated citizens and those behind the scenes who make a difference in arts and cultural programs and institutions.

Anyone who has shown up extra early to a concert has seen the ritual take place. A dude on stage – it's always a dude – taps a microphone before leaning into it: "Check, check, check-check." The person he's checking with is the sound man, manning the mixing console. Nobody really notices the sound quality during the show, unless it goes wrong. One imagines the sound man hears about it (loud and clear, this time) after the concert. So, that is why, before the concert, it is check, check and check it again.

"They want perfection," says Jon Erickson, who has mixed the sound for such heavyweight artists as Bruce Cockburn, Rush and the Tragically Hip. "They want it done right, and they're the type of artists who deserve to have it done right."

Erickson is speaking from San Francisco, where he's enjoying an off day on Cockburn's current North American tour. It's noon, and he's catching up on paperwork. "I guess it's actually a half-day off," he acknowledges.

He's doing paperwork because he's doubling as the tour manager in addition to handling the sound. "It comes down to economics," says Erickson, who has worked with Cockburn for some 25 years. "With everybody downsizing now, it's multiple jobs."

Although he enjoys the tour-manager responsibilities – travel agent, bean counter and seen-it-all problem-solver – Erickson's first love is mixing sound, something he's done since he was 17.

The job is an anonymous one. Even on one of the few occasions when a sound man has been acclaimed, the honour was dubious. On Jackson Browne's Rosie, the drummer gets the girl, leaving the male protagonist who "mixed that sound on the stage so the band could hear" alone in a hotel room, doing what men alone in hotel rooms will do.

Erickson, 62, has spent the latter part of his career mostly working with Cockburn and the Hip. He was scheduled to run the soundboard for the latter's 2016 summer tour, likely the band's final run given the subsequent death of front man Gord Downie.

Downie died of cancer last fall. Two days before the Hip tour, Erickson himself was diagnosed with advanced cancer. He sat out the tour hospitalized, but is now cancer-free.

This summer, Erickson will hit the road with yacht-rock icons Steely Dan, a band he worked with for the first time three months ago. "Working with Steely Dan was great," Erickson says. "It reminded me of when I first worked with Rush, back in the 1980s. I thought, 'I can't believe I'm actually doing this.'"

Doing it, and getting paid, too. Cheque, cheque, cheque-cheque. Sounds pretty good.

Photo: Daniel Keebler



February 13, 2018

Live Music News & Review

Bruce Cockburn
El Rey Theatre, Los Angeles, CA
February 10, 2018
Review by Larson Sutton
Photos by Stevo Rood

When Bruce Cockburn gazed into the capacity seated crowd at the El Rey Theatre in Los Angeles, he may as well been holding a mirror. Salted with dozens of spectacled, grey-haired men and their dates, the audience was clearly composed of lifers; fans that have followed the Canadian singer-songwriter and guitarist for the better part of his five-decade career.  So, when the opening notes were played of classics from the vast catalog that Cockburn has amassed, such as the first set highlight of “If I Had A Rocket Launcher,” or the second-half’s peak on “Wondering Where the Lions Are,” the otherwise polite and respectful mass turned boisterous.

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In between and through to the end, there were constant reminders of Cockburn’s quietly stinging humor, taking jabs at an unnamed current world leader who “gets enough attention already,” and a poignant anecdote about immigration ahead of “Free to Be” that served as both contemporary cautionary tale and historical footnote. That’s Cockburn’s style, even today, as he dropped in a few songs from his latest Bone on Bone, introducing the title track with another jab at aging. There was terrific irony in there, as well: Cockburn asking early of the crowd not to blow the pot smoke towards the stage; not with any moral objection but because it affected his vocal chords.

Those vocals were in wonderfully characteristic form; gravely and with a barking edge when needed, then smoother and hitting each high note. In his hands, the guitar, too, is still a powerful voice as Cockburn’s fingerstyle on instruments electric, acoustic, resonator, and even the exotic (a tiny stringed one traditionally made from the shell of an armadillo) is as melodic and technically dexterous as ever a time in the septuagenarian’s span.

Check out the full gallery of photos by Stevo Rood here.  Included are  photos that were taken 34 years ago when Stevo Rood photographed Bruce at the University of Maine, Orono in 1984. Video by Stevo from the performance here.

So, when on the final performance of the night, Cockburn and his trio of bandmates turned the El Rey into a den of psychedelia it was no real surprise. For a raging “Stolen Land,” Cockburn’s guitar roared in a wash of feedback and wah-wah, whammy bar and delay. He let the last bits of shrieking guitar linger in the air before clicking off an effects pedal, turning sheepishly to his audience with a humble smile he’s had for 50 years, and bowing with his band to another earned and deserved standing ovation.

First Set

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Tokyo
Lovers in a Dangerous Time
States I’m In
Forty Years in the Wilderness
Free to Be
Cafe Society
Peggy’s Kitchen Wall
If I Had a Rocket Launcher
Strange Waters

Second Set

Bone on Bone
Mon Chemin
Coldest Night of the Year
Jesus Train
Wondering Where the Lions Are
False River
If a Tree Falls
The Gift

Encore

Last Night
3 Al Purdy’s
Stolen Land


February 9, 2018
Acoustic Guitar

Bruce Cockburn Is Still Searching for Answers on ‘Bone on Bone’ – Acoustic Guitar
by Kenny Berowitz

In the six years since Small Source of Comfort, his last album of new songs, Bruce Cockburn has gotten married, settled in San Francisco, become a father for the second time, and started going to church again. That’s a lot, and it’s only part of the story: Cockburn spent three of those years working on his autobiography, Rumours of Glory, and when it was finished, he endured a yearlong songwriting drought. “There was simply nothing left to write songs with,” he said. “As soon as the book was put to bed, I started asking myself whether I was ever going to be a songwriter again.”

That dry spell ended with “3 Al Purdys,” a song composed for a documentary about Canada’s “unofficial poet laureate” Al Purdy, whose best-known poem is about a pint of beer that’s “half fart and half horse piss.” Channeling Purdy’s voice in lines like “the beauty of language set a hook in my soul; me like a bread crust soaking soup from a bowl” brought Cockburn back to songwriting, with the rest of the eleven cuts following over the next two years. Unlike the songs on Small Source, these have no faraway travel to spark them, but because he’s found himself in California during the current political climate, Cockburn has drawn inspiration from a world around him that feels foreign, drifting, a place where “everything is spinning in the looming entropy.”

There’s plenty of lyrical anger on Bone on Bone, from the “carcass of a tanker in the center of a stain” on “False River” to the “f—–g detours” of “Mon Chemin” to the “uniformed monkeys” of “States I’m In” to the “flapping lips of flatulence [that] bellow ‘Vote for Me’” on “Café Society.” But alongside all that outrage, which has long been part of Cockburn’s writing, there’s a renewed sense of spirituality that’s come from finding himself in church again after being away for decades. On more than half of these songs, he’s joined by a choir from SF Lighthouse, whose calls and responses transform Cockburn’s questions about God and scripture into statements of purpose. They add their affirmations to counter doubt on “Stab at Matter” and “Forty Years in the Wilderness,” and provide the full-voiced gospel momentum for “Jesus Train” and Rev. Gary Davis’ trad “Twelve Gates to the City.”

At 72, playing isn’t as easy for Cockburn as it was ten or 20 or 30 years ago. The album’s title is an allusion to his arthritis—before performances, he spends at least an hour warming up his fingers. But once he’s ready, his picking—on six-string, 12-string, and resophonic guitars—remains a thing of beauty, deeply thought and deeply felt, with an older-and-wiser economy of notes that balances urgency and patience, shimmer and substance, rhythm and ornament. And on the disc’s one instrumental, “Bone on Bone,” Cockburn faces age head-on, combining a slow, steady, monotonic bass with a melody that’s both soaring and weary—gliding between folk and jazz, and sounding as perfect as ever. 

This review was published in the March 2018 issue of Acoustic Guitar.


February 8, 2018
Boulder Weekly

Dirt-on-the-ground type of journey
by Chris Callaway


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Bruce Cockburn’s last album, Small Source of Comfort, came out six years ago. But Cockburn had good reasons to back up his absence; he spent a sizable chunk of the time working on, releasing and promoting his memoir, Rumours of Glory. The guitar virtuoso also got remarried, had another child and was busy settling into a new city, San Francisco. It was a series of life-changing events and items that demanded his time and attention.

Writing Rumours of Glory made Cockburn consider hanging up his songwriting hat, he says, and in a recent interview with Boulder Weekly, Cockburn politely dismissed the idea that his questioning was momentary or fleeting.

“No, it was kind of serious,” he says. This was a defining moment for someone who has been in the public eye as a well-respected musician since his debut album in 1970.

Cockburn eventually decided he would continue writing songs, and an album resulted. Bone on Bone, released last September, is his 25th studio album. There is typically a folk influence on Cockburn’s albums, regardless of the overall sound of the particular project, and Bone on Bone is no different. It’s not the sometimes-dissonance-edged jazz rock of The Charity of Night (1996), the world beat-influenced pop of Stealing Fire (1984) or the grit-tinged guitar rock featured on parts of the Further Adventures Of album from 1978; instead Bone on Bone has an organic feel and roots orientation.

Cockburn’s guitar playing and voice cut through the 11-track album with clarity and precision. His vocals have a slightly weathered but polished feel to them, while his guitar work has a rustic, yesteryear sound to it.

The bluesy shuffle of “Café Society” helps paint the picture of a group of folks — sometimes including Cockburn himself — that meet outside a local Peet’s Coffee & Tea. “3 Al Purdys” starts with reverberating guitar work that has become a trademark Cockburn sound. The guitar riff drives the almost-hypnotic song, with Cockburn taking on the persona of a homeless man asking folks for $20 to recite three Al Purdy poems. Cockburn discovered Purdy, a well-respected Canadian poet a few years back, picked up a volume of his poems and became a fan.

“I was blown away by how good he was,” Cockburn says. He was so blown away, in fact, that he contributed music to a film about the late poet, Al Purdy Was Here, which came out in 2015.

Both “Café Society” and “3 Al Purdys” feature the cornet work of Denver’s own legendary Ron Miles.

Miles’ cornet grabs onto Cockburn’s melodies and accentuates them. On the chorus of “Café Society” for instance, his horn-playing takes a melodic chorus and makes it difficult to forget.

Cockburn dips into gospel with “Jesus Train,” which true to its name, moves along like a Heaven-bound locomotive, and “Twelve Gates to the City.” Both songs, and four others on the album, feature The San Francisco Lighthouse Chorus.

“It’s not a choir; they just sing at church,” Cockburn says. “One Sunday it will be a couple of women. There’s just these different combinations, and then there’s the band. I’ve played with them a few times at church. It’s a great asset and a great talent pool. They were kind enough to come out and sing on all these things.”

Cockburn discovered the San Francisco Lighthouse Chorus through a church his wife, and now Cockburn, attend.

“There was just this all-embracing, fantastic vibe in the room,” he says. “I didn’t know anybody. I was a total stranger walking in there. None of them knew me. And then there was this great music, a good band and a bunch of really good singers.”

“Looking and Waiting” is another noteworthy tune from Bone on Bone. Guided by dulcet guitar picking, comforting backing harmonies and an ear-catching rhythm shift, it’s more of a dream than a song. Cockburn denies the suggestion that the tune took a long time to write, even though it has the feel of a long-crafted composition. He says the lyrics only took 15 minutes to compose. The words, as alluring as the music, express hope even with the realization that one won’t always have all the answers. In the opening lines that also act as the song’s chorus, Cockburn sings, “Looking and waiting/ It’s what I do/ Scanning the skies for a beacon from you/ Shapes on the curtain, but no clear view of you.”

Searching and questioning with hope is an overarching theme of the record. These are stories of highs and lows, pushing and pulling, ebb and flow. It’s a dirt-on-the-ground, dust-in-the-nose, sunshine-in-the-sky, water-to-drink type of journey through words and music that matches with rustic, earthy tones.

Bone on Bone is a record worth experiencing.

On the Bill: Bruce Cockburn. 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 16, Boulder Theater, 2032 14th St., Boulder. Tickets are $34.50-$39.50.

Photo: Daniel Keebler


February 5, 2018
San Francisco Examiner

Bruce Cockburn enjoys a mostly quiet life in The City
by Tom Lanham

When Canadian folk-rocker Bruce Cockburn plays Berkeley’s Freight and Salvage this week, backing his latest album “Bone on Bone,” he won’t be crashing at a roadside motel afterward. He’ll be sleeping in his own bed, right across the Bay Bridge, in his home in San Francisco, where he’s been quietly residing for nine years. “My wife — who’s an attorney — and I were living in Brooklyn, and I was still commuting there from my other house in Canada,” says Cockburn, 72. “Then she got a job in the Bay Area, and we moved out here, to a town where nobody gets by on just one income. But we love it.”

What neighborhood do you live in here?

Well, I’d rather not have too much attention focused on exactly where I live.

Do fans show up unannounced?

So far, the only person who’s showed up — and she showed up at our door –was this psycho fan that I have that’s Canadian. Fortunately, I wasn’t here, so she left a note on the door. She left her phone number, with a “Just passing through — gimme a call!” She’s just a pesky person who’s been around for decades, but her activities have abated of late, so hopefully — fingers crossed — she’s outgrowing this. But in terms of the local folks, they kind of know what I do, but none of them are particular fans that I’m aware of.

Where do you find yourself hanging out?

I’ve got a 6-year-old daughter, so I hang out at home. I have a place where I go to practice, and the rest of the time I run errands. So I truly do not hang out anywhere.

Have you written about San Francisco yet?

Well, I could do that. But I don’t. I’ve found that after any period of trying to do that, I actually ended up with the same amount of usable material as I would have if I had just waited for the good ideas. I tried that in the beginning, almost 50 years ago. And ever since then, I’ve just been waiting for the good ideas. So if an idea comes, I have to seize it and wrestle with it.

Our city is so aesthetically inspiring, though.

There was a song on the last album, an instrumental piece called “Parnassus in Fog,” and that’s a product of living here. And there’s a new song called “Café Society” that’s about the cool gang of folks that hangs out at the local Peet’s in the early mornings. And we live in an era where community is an increasingly rare and precious commodity.


January 30, 2018
The Georgia Straight

Cut from the same revolutionary cloth as N.W.A, iconic Bruce Cockburn thrills the guitar nerds of Vancouver
by Rob Bailly


I’m a bit slow sometimes, I admit...

It took until last night’s show at the Center to see the connection between Bruce Cockburn and N.W.A.

N.W.A had the shocking temerity to confront middle class white America with gritty tales of police brutality, drugs, guns, and the complete inability of government to give a shit about anyone besides the ruling elite. Bruce Cockburn has for years been speaking the same truth to power, with a level of intensity that rivals “Fuck Tha Police”, and a degree of relentlessness that has caused him to be occasionally dismissed by some as being too earnest or preachy. They weren’t listening.

Cockburn’s songs have for years been serving up searing indictments of government-sponsored terrorism, systemic economic disparity designed to benefit the ruling class, and a host of other well delineated-social ills. Songs such as “Call It Democracy”, “Trickle Down”, and “If A Tree Falls” seem to have been ignored or disparaged by some at the time of their initial release, but in hindsight, they now seem downright prescient.

Perhaps this lack of attention, especially south of the border, is due to the fact that these words are delivered by a soft-spoken, somewhat diminutive gentleman from Ontario, instead of a group of loud and angry young men straight outta Compton. No matter. The message is, again, similarly clear.

And did I mention that the author of these weighty words is a monster guitar player?

I first got exposed to his music when I was 12 years old. As we only were able to get two TV channels on a good day, I was watching a CBC variety show, and on comes this early 20s hippie. Round wire-frame glasses, acoustic guitar, and a smile so beatific that you could practically smell the hash smoke. As he played “Thoughts On A Rainy Afternoon”, I was left trying to figure out where the other guitar players were offstage, as he had the ability to sound like three people playing at once.

What he was doing on the guitar just didn’t seem possible. He only got better.

As a songwriter, Cockburn has a deeply personal style, and although he has had some hits on Canadian radio, his style has never lent itself to mainstream radio in the US. Their loss. His songs almost always seem to be an emotional reaction to things deeply personal, as if he were a big toothpaste tube of human experience, and if you squeezed hard enough from the bottom, a great song would come out the top.

Saturday’s show at the Center began with an interesting set from Sarah Felker, aka Nefe. A 22-year-old singer-songwriter from Guelph, Ontario, she gave us a brief set of originals that showed off her powerful pipes. Girl can move some air, without question.
Accompanied by a second acoustic guitarist, she rendered a tight set. However, while Felker’s material was no doubt sincere and heartfelt, the writing seemed rather… youthful.

The music itself was not particularly harmonically adventurous, and all too often the songs fell into three-chord Jack Johnson campfire mode. At times, I almost expected a drum circle to break out, but thankfully, the crowd of mostly senior citizens was able to contain its enthusiasm. Dodged that bullet… That said, I think that as Felker develops and matures as a songwriter, we may hear great things in years to come.

Cockburn and his band then took the stage. The Canadian icon is 72 and still touring, and as such, he looked a little more hunched over and moved a little slower than the last time I saw him almost a decade ago. Nevertheless, he strapped on a vintage Fender 12-string electric and got down to business.

Right from the opening chords of “Tokyo”, it was pretty much a love fest. That led into “Lovers In A Dangerous Time”, and then “States I’m In” off his latest release, Bone on Bone. Switching guitars every couple of songs, Cockburn took the crowd on a trip that mingled hits, some obscure deep cuts, and new offerings like “Jesus Train” and “Bone on Bone”, which were performed on a resonator guitar.

His guitar style has always incorporated alternate tunings, and a pumping thumb on the bass strings while the other fingers on his right hand seem to have minds of their own. It was simply stunning on a gorgeous reworking of “If I Had A Rocket Launcher”, where he used a black Fender Strat going through a delay pedal, which introduced complex polyrhythms to an already complex fingerpicking part. Guitar nerd heaven.

After touring for so many years, Cockburn is a calm and relaxed presence onstage, and once again, that calmness and humour belie the ferocity of some of his lyric treatments. After the obligatory “Wondering Where The Lions Are” and “The Coldest Night Of The Year” (both substantially reworked for this ensemble), we were treated to a great performance of “If A Tree Falls”, a blazing critique of Amazon deforestation and human environmental indifference.

Cockburn’s backing band was quite wonderful as well. Drummer Gary Craig is blessed with not only impeccable time, but the ability to coax a vast number of tonal colours from his kit, beautifully complementing, but never dominating the music. His goofy facial expressions had me in stitches too.

Unassuming John Dymond on bass did an admirable job also. His playing showing a restrained virtuosity that never drew attention for attention’s sake, but the right notes were definitely played at the right time. Always. He also provided solid backup vocals on several songs.

Cockburn’s nephew, John Aaron Cockburn, rounded out the group, playing accordion, guitar, and violin in addition to providing background vocals. While the accordion seemed suited to a couple of tracks, for my money it seemed to add unnecessary clutter to some numbers. Or maybe it was just a little hot in the mix. I’m reminded of the Far Side cartoon “Welcome to hell. Here’s your accordion…”

All jokes aside, the singer’s nephew is also an absolutely killer guitar player, and I wish he could have been featured as a guitarist more. The apple does not fall far from the extended family tree.

With an encore of “3 Al Purdys” and an absolutely stellar reworking of “Stolen Land” that featured an extended psychedelic distortion guitar solo worthy of Jimi Hendrix or Robert Fripp, the evening drew to a close. The crowd of silver hairs politely indicated its pleasure and then shuffled home to adjust their medications.

All in all, a very satisfying evening for guitar nerds everywhere. As the saying goes, just because there’s snow on the roof, doesn’t mean there’s no fire in the furnace. Let’s hope Bruce Cockburn keeps kicking at the darkness for years to come.

At the Centre for Performing Arts in Vancouver on January 27


January 26, 2018
Metro News Canada

'From here on in is a gift': Bruce Cockburn mulls our political time
by David P. Ball


Fifty years after singer-songer Bruce Cockburn burst onto the Canadian music scene combining careful guitar work with scathing political lyrics and activism to match, the man behind 'Pacing the Cage' and 'If I Had a Rocket Launcher' released his first album in six years.

His album Bone on Bone was released in September the same month as his award, and Cockburn, 72, plays Saturday 8 p.m. at the Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts. Tickets are available online.

And just this fall, the 'Lovers in a Dangerous Time' songwriter was inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, alongside some of the greats of the country's music greats.

He spoke to Metro from his San Francisco home. Here are some excerpts.

Metro: Your new album Bone on Bone features demons in disguise, Biblical images, blood sacrifice — it's a mystical album.

Bruce Cockburn: The songs come out of speculations about life and feelings triggered by the stuff I've run across. It's a record, in a certain way, not just of what's going through my head at the time, but also the years preceding it. There was a big gap from the previous group of songs.

There's a sort of a line of continuity, though: the spiritual focus has always been paramount for me. Sometimes it's obvious, sometimes it's less, in my music. Lately there's been more. It's partly a function of the stage of life I'm at, I think. Each song has it's own origin story.

Tell me about your new song 40 Years in the Wilderness.

The imagery is certainly Biblical in origin, but when I wrote it I was thinking of my own 40 years … There was a long road in between, if anyone cared to notice you can trace it through my songs and albums. I moved west — if you'd asked me 15 years ago if I was ever going to live on the West Coast, I would have said, 'No I don't see myself doing that.' But here I am. I married an American gal and she got a job in San Francisco.

How does Bruce Cockburn of 40 years ago compare to today's 72-year-old one?

To the extent I can remember, I was worried about more stuff. I wish I could claim to be free of unnecessary concerns. But I found when I turned 50, I suddenly felt I had a license to enjoy my life. Because the pressure was off. I'd made it through half a century; from here on in is a gift.

You aren't 'pacing the cage' any more?

(Laughs) That depends on the day! I might be, but mostly not. That's a condition that all of us find ourselves in one way or another at times. Hopefully infrequently.

But I do feel like for me the wilderness was learning to love and learning people. In the process of learning to be part of a community of people, which I had previously pretty much tried to avoid. But it became apparently if I was going to get any further, I had to learn how to love my neighbour — but I had to learn who my neighbour actually is!

Whether it's #MeToo, anti-Trump or refugees — do these movements remind you of the kind of awakening you saw in your songs Call It Democracy or If I Had a Rocket Launcher?

There's so much bafflegab; the President makes outrageous statements every day, you can pretty much count on it, and pretty much everything that comes out of his mouth is a lie. Why are we paying attention to this guy at all? If you're going to get involved in stuff — and I hope people do — if you get enough of that youthful energy involved in something there is the chance of making changes.

Is there anything you have to offer this generation going through its 'rocket launcher' phase?

I would caution people against getting too attached to the imagined outcome of their efforts. Because you probably won't live to see the real outcome. Don't expect to be able to revel in success or you're going to get burnt out, exhausted and cynical. It's really important to just do the work and keep the focus on stuff that actually matters.


January 25, 2018
The Times Colonist

Bruce Cockburn stays busy and relevant
by Mike Devlin

From the beginning of his career, Bruce Cockburn was recognized as an integral part of the Canadian music scene. Four decades later, the accolades are still pouring in for the environmentally conscious folk singer.

Cockburn, 72, was added to the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame last week in a ceremony in Calgary, joining the likes of Leonard Cohen, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell.

Cockburn is no stranger to awards, having won a dozen Junos. But he’s still writing, recording and touring new material. Two days after he accepted his hall of fame award, the San Francisco-based singer-songwriter played a concert that launched a 38-date tour in support of his 33rd album, Bone on Bone.

Career-capping honours — such as the People’s Voice Award he received in 2017 at Folk Alliance International, one of the world’s top music-industry conferences — often signal the end for an artist. But retirement is something the Lovers in a Dangerous Time songwriter doesn’t think about much.

“I think about the process of writing the next one,” Cockburn said recently, during an interview with the Calgary Herald. “What’s done is done. The value reflecting on those things has on me as a writer is chiefly to avoid the mistakes of the past or to just do things better, make things more clear, more interesting, more whatever.”

Cockburn has sold more than seven million records worldwide, a total buoyed during the early days by political statements such as 1984’s If I Had a Rocket Launcher and 1988’s If A Tree Falls. His music is no less confrontational — or successful — these days, especially with U.S. President Donald Trump offering up a continuous stream of songwriting fodder. Following its release, Bone on Bone hit No. 1 on the iTunes singer-songwriter chart.

The singer-songwriter said he does not directly reference Trump on Bone on Bone, his first album in seven years. He does give a shout-out to poet Al Purdy, who lived in Victoria prior to his death in 2000. The upbeat song 3 Al Purdys is what Cockburn produced when he was asked to compose a song for a documentary about the Canadian icon, and he liked it so much he included it on Bone on Bone.

“It’s something I don’t do very much of,” Cockburn told the Calgary Herald, explaining his unusual approach to writing a song about a homeless man obsessed with Purdy.

“I don’t want to say I’ve never done that before, because that’s probably not true, but nothing comes to mind that compares at the moment: To be a different character, but still be my song. In this case, I imagined myself being that guy in the song. Then it was easy to write him thinking about it that way.”

At this stage in his career, Cockburn is more interested in writing about Canada than he is the U.S.

“I think Canada punches well above its weight in terms of the quality of songwriting that comes out of this country, relative to the size of the population,” Cockburn told reporters after his hall of fame induction.

“When you think how much we were influenced by English pop music in the ’60s and American pop music forever, there’s a lot of American pop music that is actually Canadian. And a lot of that is not pop, but has more serious intent than what often gets called pop music [that] comes from here, and I’m proud of that.”


January 23, 2018
The YY Scene

After 50 years in the wilderness, Canadian songwriting legend Bruce Cockburn still takes nothing for granted
by Mike Bell


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It’s something of a nice bit of symmetry in the recent life of Bruce Cockburn.

On Tuesday night and after a nice two-month holiday break, the legendary Canadian artist will kick off the second half of his current North American tour to support his latest studio album Bone On Bone with a Jack Singer Concert Hall show.

He arrived in town two days earlier for a Sunday night ceremony at Studio Bell, where he saw his plaque placed on the wall to celebrate his induction into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, which is housed in the East Village home of the National Music Centre.

He’ll wrap this leg of the tour in early May in Toronto at Massey Hall, where last September the official Hall of Fame gala event was held, Cockburn feted alongside fellow Class of 2017 inductees Beau Dommage, Stéphane Venne and Neil Young.

“It was great,” Cockburn says of that evening sounding somewhat surprised, “contrary to my expectations. Not that I expected it to be bad or anything, but you go into an awards show thinking there’s going to be a lot of stuff that I don’t really feel like I have to sit through here, but I will anyway because I don’t want to be rude to people. But it wasn’t like that, the show was actually really good — very well produced, well rounded and the artists that performed were good, and the things people had to say were at times a little long-winded perhaps, but mostly not. The evening went off very well.”

And one imagines that the man who has devoted the past 50 years to the craft of writing songs must look at this honour as a particularly significant one.

Perhaps even more so, than, say, many of the other awards and accolades he’s received throughout the years, including a dozen Junos, induction into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, the Canadian Broadcast Hall of Fame, the Order of Canada, the many honourary doctorates and all of the others that he’s piled up in an almost unassuming manner.

“I appreciate that fact,” he says of this particular tribute to his gifts. “I don’t live for awards, believe me, it’s the last thing I’m thinking about when I’m writing. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever written a song and thought about an award at the same time. But as a measure of the fact that people are treating the songs with respect and paying attention to them, that means a lot … It’s very nice.”

Not that he’s quite yet ready to rest on those laurels, as late last year he dropped Bone On Bone, his 33rd album and first since 2011’s Small Source of Comfort.

Much of the time in between saw the artist working on his memoir Rumours of Glory, which was released in 2014.

And then. Nothing. For a couple of years, he admits the songwriting muse all but left him.

It was the longest period he hadn’t written since a year and a half at the end of the ’80s when he was burnt out and needed to step away because it was “pretty intense decade for me.” The second he did take that hiatus, however, inspiration returned.

Not this time, though, which you’d assume would have the now-San Francisco-based Cockburn concerned, even a little worried.

“It wasn’t a worry so much as just a wondering, speculation,” he says, noting that “all of the creative energy that would have produced songs went into the book, so there was neither motivation nor opportunity to write songs for the … three years it took to write that thing.

“When it was over and the book was put to bed and out, I started thinking, ‘Well, am I still a songwriter? ’”

“I’d continued to perform through that time and had come up with some instrumental pieces, but the lyrics weren’t there. So the question was, ‘Well, am I still a songwriter or is that part of my life over now? And should I be looking at something else, like, am I going to be a prose writer now?’ That was the speculation, but I was hoping that songs would come.”

That they did. After being asked to contribute a song to a documentary about Canadian poet Al Purdy, he penned the first track for the album — 3 Al Purdys — and the dam broke.

What flowed out is 11 songs that find the 72-year-old at the height of his powers. It’s vintage Cockburn, with the artist and band revisiting his consistent themes — activism, humanity, spirituality — in a remarkably fresh and refreshing manner.

The highlight of the record is the stunning, jaw-droppingly wistful and wondrous ballad Forty Years In the Wilderness, which finds Cockburn reflecting on the past four decades he’s spent living life away from the Church but still very much with faith.

It quite simply is one of the most beautiful and moving pieces he’s ever recorded.

“I was as much moved by the song when I thought of it,” he says with a chuckle.

“When I’m writing a song if I feel like it’s touching me as I’m writing it, I don’t take it for granted, but I feel like I have some justification hoping that it will hit other people deeply, too. And that has been the case with that song.

“That’s great that it struck you. I don’t know how old you are, but I wonder if it requires a degree of maturity to be touched by that particular song.”

When he’s told that he’s speaking to someone who’s a child at 47 he laughs.

“Yeah a mere babe, so you actually don’t know what it’s about at all,” he jokes. “I say that facetiously because I don’t think you have to have any particular set of qualifications, but if you’ve hit a certain age there’s a chance that the 40 Years number will have a more literal application to your life than if you haven’t been around that long.”

That, presumably, will be one of the many tracks from Bone On Bone that will make it into the setlist, with Cockburn noting that the material still feels “fresh” to him, made even more so by the full band experience of the shows.

Which is perhaps why he’s not even thinking yet of whether or not there’s still more to come from the well he’s tapped so brilliantly for so long.

“If an idea comes I’ll grab it, but I’m not waiting in the kind of receptive state that I deliberately do if I’m really looking for the songwriting experience, because I’m too busy performing and these songs still feel fresh.

“But that said I’ve got at least four new instrumental pieces that I’m working on so the creative side is being attended to. We’ve speculated — just pure speculation — about doing a second instrumental album,” he says referring to 2005’s Speechless.

“A lot of people liked that and there’ve been a lot of requests for another one and we thought maybe it would be a good thing to do. Whether these pieces will add up to that, I don’t know.”

So can fans take heart, assume that Bone On Bone is not his swan song?

“The first album could have been my swan song,” he says laughing again. “You never know …”

He continues. “I never take it for granted. People do me an honour by listening to my stuff and allowing it into their lives and hearts. I don’t take that for granted at all. I don’t assume that it’s going to stay as it is at any point. It could get bigger, it could get smaller, but as long as I feel like there’s somebody out there — and I’ve learned over the years that this is pretty much a given that there’s always going to be somebody who cares.”

He laughs again.

“My first inkling of that was playing as an opening act at a psychedelic club in Toronto in the late 60s. I was the cannon fodder that went on while they were getting the light show going and nobody was there yet … It was a huge room, a big room shaped like the inside of an egg that was the size of a football field, so there’d be half a dozen people sitting at the other end of the room, in the dark, behind the light show, you couldn’t see them.

“I learned, after doing this for a few months … I realized that actually I could feel when people were paying attention. And there always was somebody who was …

“Ever since then I’ve understood that anything you do there’s always going to be somebody there. Whether you can count on that to make a living off of, is another issue.

“But thank God for me it’s worked the way it did.”

Bruce Cockburn performs Tuesday, Jan. 23 at the Jack Singer Concert Hall.

Photo: Daniel Keebler


January 22, 2018
Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame

Songwriters Hall of Fame and National Music Centre celebrate Bruce Cockburn

Legendary singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn was honoured at a celebration hosted by the National Music Centre (NMC) in light of his 2017 induction into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame (CSHF). The event took place Sunday, Jan. 21, 2018, at Studio Bell in Calgary, and was centered around Cockburn formally placing his inductee plaque onto the CSHF wall. A reception followed, featuring a tribute performance by Calgary-based artist Aaron Young.

In her remarks, CSHF Executive Director Vanessa Thomas identified Cockburn as one of Canada’s greatest and most influential songwriters. “For the past five decades, Bruce Cockburn has made music delineated by his spiritual quest, humanitarian activity, and political viewpoint,” said Thomas. “In a body of work encompassing folk, rock, pop, reggae, jazz, blues, gospel and world music, his songs prove, every day, that music can effect change.”

“It’s a remarkable gift to have been inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame” said Cockburn. “If it’s not presuming too much, I’d like to offer a word of thanks on behalf of the whole community of Canadian songwriters. The effort to create a home for the pursuit and honouring of our art is much appreciated.”

Since it opened in 2016, Studio Bell, home of the National Music Centre (NMC), has been the physical home of the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. In December of 2017, the CSHF announced a temporary exhibition at Studio Bell, in partnership with the NMC, to honour the four 2017 inductees—Bruce Cockburn, Beau Dommage, Stéphane Venne and Neil Young.

The exhibition, called “Showcase”, displays personal items and instruments from this year’s honourees, including one of Young’s practice guitars – a vintage 1970s Epiphone acoustic – on which he wrote “Natural Beauty,” from his 1992 Harvest Moon album. Other treasures include the lyrics for Cockburn’s 1984 political anthem “If I Had a Rocket Launcher,” and 1988’s “If A Tree Falls,” along with a Linda Manzer-built acoustic guitar owned and played by him.

Two 2017 Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame inductees, Paul Brandt and Harvey Gold, are also being feted in the exhibition, which opened on Dec. 13, 2017, and will run until the fall of 2018.


January 22, 2018
The Cagary Herald

Bruce Cockburn reflects on his career during Songwriters Hall of Fame induction at the National Music Centre
by Eric Volmers


Bruce Cockburn is not in the habit of listening to his old songs. But he did find a unique way to review his canon of music a few years back.

It was when he drove his daughter to preschool in San Francisco. He became his own captive audience.

“She would always insist on hearing my stuff in the car,” said Cockburn, talking to media on Sunday evening at Studio Bell, home of the National Music Centre. “‘Can we put on your music in the car?’ Every day this would repeat itself. ‘Do we have to? Can I not play somebody else?’ Nope. So I’d play me. It’s like looking at an album of snapshots in a way. It brings back all the feelings. Not all of the details, some of those are lost to the murk of time. But, certainly, that brings back the feelings that went into those songs.”

Cockburn was in a bit of a reflective mood Sunday evening at the National Music Centre, where he participated in the plaque ceremony held in honour of his 2017 induction into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame. It found him placing his plaque on the wall, which already holds the names of artists such as Leonard Cohen, Hank Snow, Joni Mitchell and Wilf Carter.

Now housed at the National Music Centre alongside the Canadian Music Hall of Fame and the Canadian Country Music Hall of Fame, the organization is overseen by the Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada (SOCAN). The honour seems long overdue.  Somehow SOCAN managed to find more than 50 songsmiths to induct before honouring Cockburn — a songwriter’s songwriter who wrote If I Had a Rocket Launcher and Lovers in a Dangerous Time — this year, alongside Neil Young, Beau Dommage and Stéphane Venne.

But he was gracious and had high praise for his fellow songwriters from the Great White North. 

“I think Canada punches well above its weight in terms of the quality of songwriting that comes out of this country relative to the size of the population,” said Cockburn, who will play the Jack Singer Concert Hall on Tuesday night. “When you think how much we were influenced by English pop music in the ’60s and American pop music forever, there’s a lot of American pop music that is actually Canadian. And a lot of it that is not pop but has more serious intent than what often gets called pop music comes from here and I’m proud of that.”

Cockburn, 72, recounted his beginnings as a songwriter. Initially, the Ottawa native saw himself becoming a composer for jazz ensembles. But he also became interested in poetry.

“Then, along came Gordon Lightfoot, Ian and Sylvia Tyson, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Bob Dylan and others who woke me up to the notion that interesting music and poetics were not mutually exclusive, that you could put serious music together with melody, a chant or a groove,” he said. “I was hooked.”

Wearing a tie and his trademark Doc Martens, Cockburn also showed a flash of the political irreverence that informs many of his most beloved songs when talking about Canada versus the U.S., where he has lived for the past nine years.

“As people who belong to this country, we should know that we belong to the one island of sanity in the Western Hemisphere,” he said to cheers from the audience. “Everything south of here is (expletive) up.”

Photo: Darren Makowichuk


January 19, 2018
Calgary Herald

Writer recharged: Bruce Cockburn talks about writer's block, Trump and avoiding 'mistakes of the past’
by Eric Volmers


It should surprise no one that Bruce Cockburn has thoughts about the political turmoil in the United States under President Donald Trump.

After all, the Ottawa-born singer-songwriter has lived in San Francisco for a number of years. He goes to church there. He is raising his six-year-old daughter there. Obviously, he is invested. He’s is also one of modern music’s most astute political songwriters, known for penning tunes such as the angry and direct 1984 anthem If I Had a Rocket Launcher and the urgent, green-leaning 1989 classic If A Tree Falls.

So why wouldn’t he have thoughts? Besides, it would just seem a waste to have Bruce Cockburn on the line and not have him weigh in on what is behind the strange political climate of his adopted country.

“It’s all smokescreen now,” he says. “You pretty much can bet that everything that comes out of the President’s mouth is false. Every single word except for perhaps the references to his own feelings, that may be genuine. But everything else is B.S. But we all pay attention to it because you can’t believe the next piece and then you think ‘What’s going to come next?’ But in the meantime, they are dismantling the (Environmental Protection Agency), they are dismantling, as much as they can, any kind of regulation on corporate behaviour. That’s what it’s all about. It’s all about some people making a vast sum of money at everyone else’s expense and he’s supposed to keep us distracted, which he’s doing a pretty good job of.”

It’s all made for a national atmosphere filled with anxiety and confusion. But, if history is any guide,  interesting political times tend to lead to interesting music.

Cockburn laughs when asked if Trump “inspired” him in any way when writing the songs for Bone on Bone, his first album in seven years and his first to come after suffering an extended period of writer’s block. He quickly points out that “inspired” is not the word he would choose. But he acknowledges that both the moody opening track, States I’m In, and the driving and bluesy Cafe Society loosely reflect the angst and anxiety he senses around him.

But perhaps the most potent political commentary was his decision to include an acoustic-blues arrangement of the religious, traditional Twelve Gates to the City as the album’s closer.

“It’s a song about inclusion,” says Cockburn, who will perform backed by a full band at the Jack Singer Concert Hall on Jan. 23 and Edmonton’s Winspear Centre on Jan. 24. “The message of the Biblical passage from which that comes — it’s specifically about Israel — is that there’s a gate for each of the tribes. You’re all welcome here in God’s city. To me, by extension, that seemed like an important thing to say right now in America.”

Still, Cockburn ultimately sees Bone on Bone as more spiritual than political. Whatever the case, the album certainly sounds like it came from a songwriter whose creativity has been recharged. From the aforementioned acoustic and gospel blues tracks to the intricate and instrumental title song to the gorgeous and melodic ballad 40 Years in the Wilderness, Bone on Bone finds one of Canada’s finest songwriters in top form. It’s all the more impressive considering that, only a few years ago, Cockburn questioned whether he would ever write another song.

He spent three years writing his 2014 memoir, Rumours of Glory, which he says sapped up a good deal of his creativity. He had gone through dry spells before, but this seemed a little more permanent.

“There was nothing left over for the songs and no real motivation for the songs because I was doing this other kind of writing,” he says. “When it was over, after all that time, I sort of thought ‘I don’t know if I’m a songwriter or not, I’ll have to wait and see.’ Luckily, because I was hoping I would be still, songs did start coming after awhile. The album is proof of that.”

It was the rollicking 3 Al Purdys that helped Cockburn turn the corner. He was asked to compose the song for a documentary about the Canadian poet. Producing songs to order is not the way he usually works but he penned a narrative about a homeless man obsessed with Purdy and eager to trade recitations of his poems for spare change. While it’s ostensibly a sad story, Cockburn seems to be having a blast operating outside his comfort zone as he exuberantly inhabits the eccentric narrator.

“It’s something I don’t do very much of,” he says. “I don’t want to say I’ve never done that before because that’s probably not true, but nothing comes to mind that compares at the moment: To be a different character but still be my song. In this case, I imagined myself being that guy in the song. Then it was easy to write him thinking about it that way. Living in San Francisco, there’s plenty of models for that kind of character that you see every day.”

Now that the writer’s block is behind him, the singer continues to look to the future. On Sunday, Cockburn will be in Calgary for the formal plaque ceremony of his induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, which is housed at the National Music Centre. In December, the centre launched a temporary exhibit that included artifacts from this year’s inductees, which include Cockburn, Neil Young, Quebecois rockers Beau Dommage and French-Canadian composer Stephane Venne. It features Cockburn’s notebooks in which he wrote lyrics to some of his most beloved songs, including Lovers in a Dangerous Time and If A Tree Falls. It offers a tantalizing glimpse into his creative process.

While Cockburn says he is grateful that he has fans who pay close attention to such things, he admits he doesn’t think much about the process once a song is finished.

“I think about the process of writing the next one,” he says with a laugh. “What’s done is done. The value reflecting on those things have on me as a writer is chiefly to avoid the mistakes of the past or to just do things better; make things more clear, more interesting, more whatever.”

Bruce Cockburn will play the Jack Singer Concert Hall on Jan. 23 and Edmonton’s Winspear Centre on Jan. 24.


January 19, 2018
Vancouver Courier

Bruce Cockburn thought he was done, but he’s far from it
by John Kurucz


 Bruce Cockburn is a lot like the Montreal Canadiens teams of the 1970s.

They’ve done it all, won it all and have every decoration and distinction imaginable, but have experienced a dormant period in recent years.

 The Courier spoke to Cockburn in advance of his upcoming tour, which lands in Vancouver at the Centre for Performing Arts on Jan. 27.

Speaking from his home in San Francisco, the 72-year-old Canadian singer-songwriter mused on his process, almost losing it and how he got it back

But first, some hard numbers on a career that’s spanned almost five decades.

* 12 Juno Awards

* Roughly a million albums sold in Canada alone

* 9 honourary doctorates or degrees

* 33 albums, including his latest, 2017’s Bone on Bone

* Order of Canada recipient

* Canadian Music Hall of Fame inductee

* Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee

* Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal recipient

* SOCAN Lifetime Achievement Award for songwriting success

* Governor General's Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement

And you thought the Habs’ six Cups in 10 years was impressive…

You have dozens of albums and hundreds of songs. Two and three generations of fans are at your shows. How do you cater to all these different groups and different wants when you draw up your setlist?

I don’t know if you really try to cater to everyone, exactly. But I do pay attention to what I think people hope for when they come to a show. They put up money for tickets, you have to respect that and sympathize with it. Any given show of mine is going to be made up whatever’s new and current plus the songs that I feel people will really feel cheated if they don’t hear. And then I fill in the rest with whatever I feel like from the back repertoire. I like to change it up from time to time so I’m not always doing the same old songs.

Take me through your headspace 30 minutes before going on stage.

I get nervous. It’s not panic, but there’s definitely nerves involved. I have a whole routine that I go through to prep: gargling with warm salt water, inhaling steam and all these tricks I’ve learned from various other singers. If it’s a band tour like this one is, it’s a bit of a different atmosphere backstage, so there’s more of a social atmosphere then there is when it’s just me solo.

What has to happen for you to walk off stage and say “tonight was awesome.”

I have to not make any mistakes, and that almost never happens. When it does, I come off stage feeling pretty good. But the audience doesn’t always agree with my take on things and that happens whether it’s a collective effort or not. I’ve come off stage with the band and we’ve all felt it was a fantastic show, everyone got everything right and everything gelled. And then somebody else will say, “I thought you better the night before.” So it’s a pretty subjective judgment.

More and more performers — bands and comedians — are saying no to cell phones at live performances. What’s your take on cellphones at your gigs?

I don’t worry about it too much, but I used to. When it was more of a rarity it used to seem very intrusive, it seemed like it was disrupting the people around the guilty party. But after a while, it just became so ubiquitous. You can’t really take a position on it because no one cares what you think. They’re going to do what they do. I do think it’s changed the character of how audiences respond in a way, but I don’t notice any lack of enthusiasm on the part of the audience.

There was a six-year gap between albums, arguably the longest of your career. There was a memoir written and a birth in that timeframe. You alluded to perhaps being done as a songwriter, that you had nothing left to say. What was going through your mind as you reconciled potentially walking off into the sunset?

It was a wait and see. I was hoping that I would write more songs. I didn’t feel like it was over. But I also felt like maybe the universe was telling me that it was over. So you just have to wait and see how that plays out when you’re in a place like that. I’ve been in situations like that in other issues lots of times in my life, where you say “what am I supposed to do now?" You wait until you do know, and then you do something. It was the same with the songs.

Given the length of your career, how do you stay hungry and driven to keep doing what you do?

I remain hopeful that I’ll succeed. That’s all it takes for me. I don’t want to go up there slouching and not giving people what they came for. They’ve done me the honour of coming out to the shows to listen to what I’ve got to present to them. I want to present it in the best way that I can.

Tickets for Cockburn’s show are available at ticketmaster.ca.

This interview has been edited and condensed.


January 18, 2018
Vue Weekly

Kicking The Darkness
by Stephan Boissonneault

Bruce Cockburn can’t escape his political criticism but continues to write songs from the heart

Bruce Cockburn is a name that many people know or have at least heard. The Canadian singer-songwriter has written more than 300 songs about love, protest, and activism that have been covered by musicians like Chet Atkins, Barenaked Ladies, Jerry Garcia—the list goes on.

Almost a decade ago the 72-year-old icon made the move from Canada to San Francisco. Even though he has lived there for nine years, it’s still a strange transition period for him—especially with the current political sphere.

“I’m in the States of Trump and it’s peculiar,” he says from his driveway. “I don’t know if it’s all that strange. My only experience of living in the States was in the ‘60s when I went to music school. It was very polarizing much like it is now.”

Though the situation feels familiar to Cockburn, he’s getting tired of talking about it.

“Ever since Trump assumed presidency, I don’t think I’ve had a conversation with somebody in this country where his name hasn’t come up,” he says. “He’s in his glory ‘cause the guy wants attention, but it’s revolting and it gets tiring thinking about it. He’s not the devil. I think he serves the devil without probably knowing it, but he’s a human being.”

Cockburn really tries to no longer think about politics, but every once in awhile, his thoughts trickle in. It can be consciously or unconsciously like on his newest record, Bone on Bone and its opening song “The States I’m In.”

“The challenge is to keep from being distracted from all the bullshit out of the White House,” Cockburn says. “It doesn’t matter what comes out of Trump’s mouth because you know it’s not true. So there is that overlap in the meaning of the song but it’s more about having lived in the times and conditions I’ve lived in. It does have a double entendre about the situation here, even though I never intended it.”

The tone of the album has an almost distressing, sombre quality to it. Every song obviously comes from a place that is true for Cockburn, but there are political undertones on songs like “Stab At Matter,” “Cafe Society,” and “False River” peppered throughout. It makes sense. This is the musician who wrote “If I Had A Rocket Launcher,” a song that went on to be on of the most popular protest songs in the ‘80s.

“It’s important to be hopeful and critical. Without that, we’re all toast,” he says.

Bone on Bone is Cockburn’s first album in six years. After his Small Source Of Comfort record in 2011, he focused on touring and writing his memoir Rumours of Glory. Many thought his album writing days were over, including Cockburn himself.

“Someday it will run out, and the pace of album making got slower since the ‘90s. After 30 years of doing it, or whatever, I’ve already said a lot of what I have to say.”

At the time, Cockburn felt uninspired to write new songs as much of his creativity was going into the memoir. It wasn’t until he was approached to write a song for a documentary about the past free verse poet Al Purdy, that his musical inspiration was reinvigorated.

“This seemed like a gift,” Cockburn says. “I didn’t really know what I was going to write a song about, but now somebody wanted me to write a song that has some tangential relationship with Al Purdy. As soon as I said yes to writing the song I said the phrase ‘I’ll give you three Al Purdy’s for a 20 dollar bill.’ So I had to create a character who would say that. So I had this disheveled homeless guy who loves poetry, particularly Al Purdy.”

From that burst of imagination, the country-blues song “3 Al Purdys” was written as other songs began appearing to Cockburn during dreams and periods of self-reflection.

Perhaps one of the most universally powerful songs on Bone on Bone is “40 Years In The Wilderness,” an almost meditative acoustic track with a sound that harkens back to one of Cockburn’s older songs “Lord of the Starfields.”

“Songs like that really come from a deep place,” Cockburn says. “In that case, [“40 Years In the Wilderness”] we were what people euphemistically call ‘camping,’ and I was watching some joggers and thinking about having moved from the east to the west, and all these elements seemed to conspire. So I started writing this song that’s almost quite biblical in a way. I had not thought about in the Old Testament when the Israelites have left Egypt that they are in the wilderness for 40 years.”

It’s refreshing that even though this is Cockburn’s 25th album, he can still write songs that are abnormally personal, but relatable.

“My own spiritual development required me to get out of my own head and get into understanding people in a heartfelt way,” Cockburn says. “I did that by exploring the human world for about 40 years. That’s really where the song came from I think. The sun sets on all of us and the older you get, the closer it gets.”


January 16, 2018
Beat Route

Bruce Cockburn: Just a mouthpiece… with something still to say
by Andrew Bardsley

CALGARY – Canadian icon, Bruce Cockburn, returns from a three year hiatus with Bone on Bone, a return to form for the legendary singer-songwriter. With an astonishing 33 albums under his belt, Bruce Cockburn has brought us a frantic, but timely album, his first since 2011. Cockburn has been a fixture in Canadian folk since the ‘70s, but it was Dancing in The Dragon’s Jaws (1979) and the song “Wondering Where the Lions Are” which propelled Cockburn to international renown. 

“What else am I gonna do? I’m still here and I still have something to say.” Cockburn tells BeatRoute from his Bay area home, when asked what keeps him going, his 33rd album now on the shelves. “I have had the same lack of a game plan since day one.”  

Bone on Bone also marks Cockburn’s first album since the release of his memoir Rumours of Glory (2014). His rewarding lyrics and virtuousic guitar ability has defined his career, but following the release of his memoir, Cockburn initially didn’t think he was going to be able to return to music. “After that long I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to remember how to write a song, or whether-or-not my life had changed enough that it wouldn’t be the thing to do anymore.”  

It was an invitation to contribute a song to a documentary on Canadian poet Al Purdy that brought Cockburn back to songwriting. “This was a gift from God I thought. I had this image of this homeless guy who was obsessed with Al Purdy’s poetry.”  

The song in question turned into “Sweet Al Purdy” and is also the inspiration behind “3 Al Purdy’s” on Bone on Bone. Cockburn did not grow up in a religious home but it was his time as an adolescent that helped form his faith, which has always been a critical juncture for him. A child of the Beat Generation, Cockburn grew up reading about Buddhism, the Occult and eventually Christianity.  

“It got to the point where I had to look in the mirror and say to myself, ‘You’re a Christian now.’ At that point in my life, I didn’t really know how to have a relationship with anybody let alone God. I had grown up not really good at relationships so I had a lot to learn about that.”  

A large part of Cockburn’s extended period away from music allowed him to invest himself in fatherhood for his young daughter Iona Cockburn, born in 2011. Although Cockburn tries to bring his daughter on tour as much as possible, she has started school and is unable to join him as much as he would like. 

“If you have a family that can travel with you that changes the picture drastically.” He attests. At the juncture of parenting and activism, Cockburn is hopeful for his daughter. “I trust that my young daughter will pick up the vibe, but the world she grows up in is going to be quite different from the one we are currently in I think, and not necessarily for the better.”  

Living in San Francisco under the looming thunderstorm of today’s political climate has allowed a new era of activists to interact with Cockburn’s music, finding such hits as “If I had a Rocket Launcher” off the 1987 album Waiting For A Miracle*, still resonant with the politics of today. While Cockburn does not consider it his job, he is happy to speak truth to power with the power he has an artist. 

“I’ve never seen myself as much of an activist but as a mouthpiece for the people who are the real activists.”  

Bruce Cockburn performs January 23 at the Jack Singer Concert Hall (Calgary), January 24 at the Winspear Centre (Edmonton), and January 27 at the Centre for the Arts (Vancouver).

* Original recording is from the album, Stealing Fire (1984

© Daniel Keebler 1993-2018