Bruce Cockburn At The Cedar. Pay Attention To The Poet


What a weekend for music in the Twin Cities!  I’m still buzzing.  Bruce Cockburn’s sold out, intimate show at The Cedar on Sunday was the perfect icing on the cake.

All of us have had that late night conversation with friends about the 10 Desert Island albums.  You know, the ones that would have to go with you in order to maintain your sanity following the shipwreck?  There really aren’t any rules.  Sometimes it’s a nod to the importance of an album.  The ones that changed the landscape.  Call those the Sargent Pepper or Dark Side of the Moon type entries.  But in most cases, it’s those albums that truly mean something to you.  The albums that you listen to now as often as you listened to them 40 years ago.  Admittedly, some on the fringe tend to change over time.  But you no those that are non-negotiable.

In my case, two of the artists that created Desert Island albums comprised my weekend.  Saturday was The Waterboys.  Their 1988 breakout Fisherman’s Blues will always be on my playlist.  Bruce Cockburn’s Charity of Night is another.  Very different albums and styles.  But they share a couple common qualities.  Brilliant lyrics, killer hooks and grooves, passion that burns.  Songs that stand up to the ravages of time like the heads carved into Rushmore.

I first saw Cockburn about 35 years ago.  He already had an impressive discography.  I’ve watched him evolve over the years.  For the most part, he has eliminated anything superfluous.  As I sat at his feet last night, I pondered that evolution and appreciated how gracefully the man has aged.  Things seem simpler now.  As an artist he no longer feels the need to overwhelm us with a big band.  (Although he’s built some amazing bands!).  Or the need to pander to us with the “Hits”.  Just Bruce and his guitars; his nephew John pitching in with and acoustic and accordion.  The songs and his virtuosity are all that are required.  The quiet, respectful and delighted audience lingered on every note.

Early on, audience requests came freely and unbidden.  Cockburn would chuckle and report that he’d “take it under advisement.”  It should have been obvious he already had a plan.  Thereafter what came from the audience was usually:  “Play what you want!”  When someone sitting in the audience told him that we all loved him, he looked up and touched his heart.  “I can feel it.  Thank you.  It’s what keeps me going.”  Sure didn’t seem like empty repartee.  Both parties meant it.

There are two qualities I admire greatly about Bruce Cockburn, aside from the fact that I love his music.  He’s always been a world traveler.  An activist for people, environments and cultures.  But he’s always advocated with remarkable grace.  Sure, many of his songs are strongly worded and fit the definition of protest songs.  Yet, the anger and message is embedded in some kind of human story that draws us in.  Paints the conflict in human terms.  He makes his points without preaching between songs.  Perhaps it’s just me, but I’ve always felt that art can change the world.  When somebody has to explain what it means or how all of us should react, it cheapens and loses impact.  Cockburn’s songs have all the power they need.  He’s always allowed them to speak for him.

The second, often overlooked, quality is that he is a remarkable guitar player.  His picking style is utterly original.  His ability to coax so many notes from a guitar keeps you looking for another player.  Nobody, particularly someone singing, can lay down a groove and overlay a sparkling lead line like that, can they?  Well, maybe Leo Kotke.  Difference being that Kotke is a picker who occasionally sings.  Cockburn is a picker who sings songs that put his playing in the background.  Many years ago, the story went around that an interviewer asked Eric Clapton what it was like being the best guitar player in the world.  He responded:  “I don’t know.  Maybe you should ask Bruce Cockburn.”

The biggest difference between last night’s show and others I’ve previously seen was that the scope seemed smaller.  The songs grounded in the present.  Mostly in our corner of the globe.  In the past, songs and stories wandered the whole world.  From Amsterdam to India.  Cambodia to Mozambique.  Last night it seemed he stayed closer to home.  

All of this is not to suggest that he didn’t pull out gems from early albums or that he didn’t have some political comments to make.  Bruce Cockburn will always have something to say about the state of the world.  As a younger man, he might have leaped to the ramparts in support of a cause.  Some of that anger seems to have burned away.  He understands his voice is stronger than his body.

Before you conclude he’s no longer an activist, consider the words from They Call It Democracy, a song penned in 1986 .  Then ponder the conflicts we are experiencing as people try to come to grips with corporate greed and the proliferation of Haves and Have Nots.  

Sinister cynical instrument
Who makes the gun into a sacrament
The only response to the deification
Of tyranny by so-called “developed” nations’
Idolatry of ideology

North south east west
Kill the best and buy the rest
It’s just spend a buck to make a buck
You don’t really give a flying fuck
About the people in misery

Or in light of this summer’s widespread burning of the Amazon basin and its impact on culture and climate.

If a tree falls in the forest does anybody hear?
If a tree falls in the forest does anybody hear?
Anybody hear the forest fall?

Cut and move on
Cut and move on
Take out trees
Take out wildlife at a rate of species every single day
Take out people who’ve lived with this for 100, 000 years –
Inject a billion burgers worth of beef –
Grain eaters – methane dispensers.

This song was also written over thirty years ago as he witnessed first hand the clear cutting of the world’s most complex and unexplored ecosystem.  Both songs proved to be prophetic. He’s always had a way of seeing in bigger pictures than most of us.
I drove home contemplating the man and everything he’s tried to tell us for years.  It occurred to me that the song Maybe The Poet is really about him.  Maybe we should listen.  This world needs the poets.  We are richer for the Bruce Cockburns of the world.
Male female slave or free
Peaceful or disorderly
Maybe you and he will not agree
But you need him to show you new ways to seeDon’t let the system fool you
All it wants to do is rule you
Pay attention to the poet
You need him and you know it



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