Concert Review: Bruce Cockburn (Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, Troy, New York, April 25, 1996)

Some years ago, a particularly eloquent mathematics professor made advanced calculus come alive for me by demonstrating how it applied to some of the electronics gear I used when making awful guitar noises. It was a mental epiphany for me; I was shocked to realize that the principles behind an intellectual construct like differential equations (so difficult! so distant!) could actually enhance my understanding of various real life experiences.

I had that same sort of feeling after Bruce Cockburn’s show at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall last Thursday. With stage as blackboard, Cockburn summed one voice, two wind-chimes and three guitars, integrated them over 21 songs with nary a thought for lowest common denominators — and then shocked me with the realization that the principles behind a creative construct like “Mines of Mozambique” (so distant! so difficult!) could also enhance my understanding of various real life experiences. I’ll consider myself fortunate if I’m accorded another such revelatory teaching experience in the years ahead.

Cockburn didn’t have a new album to promote on this tour (although he’s going into the studio after the tour to record the follow-on to 1994’s lovely Dart to the Heart) so he was free to select songs from throughout his career without undue emphasis on any one record. Cockburn’s fresh juxtapositioning of old material provided sublime new perspective on many of his best works. As an example, he opened with “Tokyo” (a reflection on mortality from a sleepless night spent replaying an auto accident) and “Lord of the Starfield” (a hymn of praise to the Creator) — the shift from here-and-now to everywhere-and-always produced a two-song whole greater than the sum of its parts, a collage picturing that ethereal point where the spiritual and earthly meet.

Cockburn also presented several songs written since Dart to the Heart’s release. While Dart was essentially a collection of love songs (in the broad sense of the word — love of God, love of man, love of brother, love of partner, etc.), Cockburn’s next album will mark a return to the more political fare of his 80’s albums if the material he presented last week provided a representative cross-section. “Get Up Jonah” was the brightest gem of the new lot, a ferocious Old Testament-y talking blues piece that somehow discussed Turkish drummers, Afghan secret police, and a post-industrial Nineveh awaiting the arrival of the prophet of its own doom; “Get up, Jonah!” Cockburn raged, “It’s your time to be born!” Simply stunning stuff.

Cockburn had performed one of his U.S. charting singles (“Wondering Where the Lions Are”) at the start of his second set; at the end of that set, we rose to offer the obligatory standing ovation that would call him back for the expected encore of his other chart single (“If I Had a Rocket Launcher”). Instead, Cockburn returned, tuned his guitar into an open-C usually employed “by itinerant women in the South of Chile and dead American gospel singers” and whipped off three drone laden gospel-blues inflected numbers — culminating with the wicked “Blues Got the World By the Balls”. Bruce Cockburn did the sacred, he did the profane, he did lots of the humane — and we looked and saw that it was very good, indeed, even without the rocket launchers.

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