Veteran Songwriter Bruce Cockburn Fires Vocal Rockets
Courtesy of Bruce Cockburn
Bruce Cockburn has to be the most hot-cold songwriter operating today. On one hand, there are songs about sunrises, horses running across golden plains, the mysteries of life, and spiritual awakening. And on the other, Cockburn fires off songs about narco-politics, human rights, religious flaws, and environmental degradation, offering such poignant lyrics as "If I had a rocket launcher, some son of a bitch would die."
He is not a man to hold back his feelings, ideas, and thoughts -- no matter how unpopular or unusual. In fact, lyrics have always been Cockburn's strong suit, consistently offering striking visual images, thought-provoking nuance, and pointed allegory. His words have drawn the ire of politicos, church leaders, and right-wing leaners and praise from environmentalists, fellow musicians, the hippie set, and those just after a damn good song. But there's also that quirky nature that allows lines such as "I'm good at catching rainbows / Not so good at catching trout," or "My name was Richard Nixon only now I'm a girl," to pop up now and again. (The latter is in reference to a dream about power and reincarnation.)
Musically, Cockburn typically meanders though loosely assembled styles and genres that call on Irish brogues, Native American spirits, Middle Eastern Sufis, Southern blues, American folk roots, and idiosyncratic jazz. Cockburn's arrangements are creative and cunning, shifting from numbers interspersed with carefully placed instrumentation or backup vocals and harmonies to stripped-down, barren, and raw orchestrations. He can rock as hard as The Who, shuffle at a whisper, or take on laid-back folk instrumentals à la Leo Kottke.
And Cockburn relishes the power of the instrumentals, and many appear on his albums and live sets. Cockburn understands that words -- even ones as elegantly selected as his -- aren't always required to convey a feeling or message.
Now with more than 20 albums to his credit, the last being 2011's Small Source of Comfort, Cockburn's determination to make music undeniably his way has carried him far. All told, it's been a long and varied career for Cockburn, stretching more than 40 years since he broke out of the Canadian singer-songwriter scene in the late 1960s (after a brief dabble in psychedelic rock with Olivus -- which opened for the Jimi Hendrix Experience and Cream in April 1968). He debuted with a series of low-key albums reflecting on his Christianity and rural Canadian life that showed off his mastery of fingerstyle guitar playing as well that stunning lyrical aptitude.
Cockburn eventually recruited a band for more dramatic effect, culminating in the politically charged and career-defining album Stealing Fire, with the above-referenced "If I Had a Rocket Launcher" leading the way. Shortly thereafter, he returned to his solo folk roots, and working almost exclusively with a Dobro resonator guitar, put out 1991's wonderfully dark Nothing but a Burning Light. In 1999, Cockburn continued his acoustic ways as he explored the connections between New Orleans's deep blues and jazz roots and West Africa's polyrhythmic complexities with Breakfast in New Orleans, Dinner in Timbuktu.
Cockburn has bounced between band and solo outings for much of the past decade. Yet whatever the setup, Cockburn's guitar playing and powerful lyrics continually dominate the stage.
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