Bruce Cockburn performing at The Queen’s Hall Edinburgh tonight marked a long overdue, and welcome, return to Scotland as part of his current tour. For the Canadian born singer-songwriter this was also for him a welcome return to old family roots, and it was obvious all through the two sets of this concert that Bruce Cockburn was enjoying being here as much as his audience were enjoying him being here.
With a career spanning over 40 years, 100s of songs, and critical and commercial success, just where does a singer-songwriter of not only this depth of song catalogue, but quality of songs begin? Always a question as you can be sure that for every favourite in the set, someone’s favourite is missed out. Well, the most recent album, “Bone on Bone” from 2017 and a song from that album, “States I’m In” to open the set with was as good a place as any, and that blend of newer and older material continued throughout the two sets. Other songs from this album included amongst others, “40 Years In The Wilderness”, “Jesus Train” and a commissioned work on seminal Canadian poet Al Purdy, simply titled “ 3 Al Purdy’s”. Sometimes, listening to such wonderfully crafted songs and powerful lyrics it can be easy to forget at times just what a skilled guitar player Bruce Cockburn also is, and another song from this album, the instrumental title track “Bone on Bone” was a reminder of that laid back, but impressive skill.
Our second set opened with Bruce Cockburn swapping guitar for the not often seen here South American “Charango”, a stringed instrument with a very distinctive sound used with great effect on a few songs, “Pacing The Cage” being one of them. Earlier works including “Call it Democracy” and “If A Tree Falls” are striking examples of the music and words of Bruce Cockburn to tackle important issues like democracy and ecology head on and these songs are sadly more powerful and relevant now than when they were originally written, as the states of both democracy and ecology have only declined and worsened rapidly over the years .
So many classic songs here – “Silver Wheels”, “The Gift” and “One Day I Walk” being only a few of the classic songs from his earlier work that received well deserved applause, and that feeling of community that you sometimes get at a concert with so many people in the audience singing along to songs that obviously meant so much to them.
I have to admit that, although I was familiar with some of Bruce’s better known songs before this show, there were also many that were new to me, and a little online research ahead of this review just reinforced my opinions of his work. Bruce Cockburn is not just a songwriter, but a poet with the gift of painting pictures with his words, and what words! Older and more recent material clearly show a writer of strong opinions and principles, a writer not afraid to stand up and be counted whenever a voice is required on important matters of intolerance, social injustice, politics, the futility of war and ecology. It is clear through his music that Bruce Cockburn is still as relevant as a writer now as he has always been over the 40 plus years of his career.
Bruce Cockburn is a singer-songwriter-poet in the classic understanding of the term. Through his work you can hear the voices of other great wordsmiths including of course, Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. Bruce Cockburn has been an influence upon many songwriters over the years, and anyone listening to the early works of Bruce Springsteen will clearly hear that influence (amongst others) in his music.
Every generation needs someone like Bruce Cockburn to speak out for them, and new generations need to keep re-discovering people like Bruce Cockburn who have not only in this case left an important legacy of words and music for us all, but are continuing to speak out whenever needed through their works. It was nice to see such a wide spread of ages at this concert, proof that Bruce Cockburn and his music are still speaking to young and old in equal measures.
Bruce Cockburn took some time out from writing new songs for a little while a few years ago to write his autobiography (along with journalist Greg King). The book, “Rumours of Glory”, is probably the first stop off point now for anyone wanting to find out more about the life and songs of the man.
Review by Tom King