If the concerts I am attending this year have a collective theme, it would have to be Catching Up.
With Bruce Cockburn, it’s been almost a decade since last I saw him (May 2011 at The Egg in Albany to be exact). That was the year the normally prolific Canadian singer-songwriter released Small Source of Comfort; since then, the rest of the world and I have had to wait for the follow up, 2017’s Bone on Bone.
Now nearly two years’ old, the album has become a worthy addition to the Cockburn canon, as the night’s set opener, “States I’m In,” perfectly illustrated. If there was anyone in attendance who was unfamiliar with his work — which is hard to believe considering Cockburn’s career is now well into its sixth decade — it was the best possible introduction.
The song featured Cockburn’s signature guitar technique, a form of Travis picking that combines propulsive, undulating bass lines with shimmering, echo-enhanced leads picked out from chords up and down the fretboard.
The song’s lyrics were also typically Cockburn: dense, detailed, poetic layers of personal observation and mysticism delivered with urgency but without sentiment or confession. “Crows in the treetops, motors in the road,” Cockburn sang in his distinctive, laconic baritone, “Structures of darkness that the dawn corrodes/Into the title montage of a new episode.”
And with that, we were off and running.
Both sets moved beautifully and seamlessly between the old and the new. In the first, a gorgeous “After the Rain,” which showed Cockburn’s voice is none the worse for wear after all these years, nestled comfortably with a song like “3 Al Purdys,” an epic tale that weaves the words of Canadian poet Al Purdy with the story of a homeless man who will recite “three Al Purdy’s for a twenty dollar bill.” And the satirical “Cafe Society” was in good company in the same set as such flawlessly delivered staples as “Lovers in a Dangerous Time,” “Mama Wants to Barrelhouse All Night Long,” and “Last Night of the World.”
But in truth, as good as songs like “Jesus Train” and the cherango-accompanied “Bone on Bone” were, it was the older songs that resonated best in the second set.
Maybe it was just a sign of the political times, but “Call it Democracy” and “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” seemed to take on new relevance, especially the latter with the line “I don’t believe in guarded borders,” which garnered the biggest response of the night. And “If a Tree Falls” seemed to hold the audience captive more than any other song before or after the intermission.
Despite a curiously subdued “Wondering Where the Lions Are,” the evening had everything you could want from a Cockburn performance — poetic depth, technical mastery, and more than enough spiritual power to push the late-arriving Buffalo spring into bloom. It was all the proof the audience needed that Bruce Cockburn remains a small source of comfort (pun intended) in these seemingly dark days.