Bruce Cockburn at The Music Box

A jewel who has generously been shining and reflecting light for 50 years gave a mesmerizing performance at San Diego’s Music Box. His fans have grudgingly accepted that he may have attained a level of recognition far below his true stature, but they sing his praises consistently and new believers are added to the fold. The number of awards Cockburn has quietly accepted will withstand the test of time (as will his donation of monetary awards associated with the awards). The issues with which he publicly grapples are fascinating on an intellectual level and compelling on a musical level. 

His much delayed 50th anniversary tour is finally underway and it raises the wonderful question of why legacy artists tour. The money can be nice but in the case of consummate artists like Cockburn inevitably, invariably there must be that ineffable need to share your art with others. And thank goodness Cockburn does that. 

An admittedly adoring audience welcomed all of the songs he played, which included a generous sampling of four new songs (with rumors of a glorious batch of additional songs sufficient to fill out an album by autumn). With one of the deepest catalogs of any of his fellow Canadian artists, Cockburn had much from which to choose. Several in the audience noticed that his recent performance was even better than the prior show he had in San Diego, back in 2005, at the smaller Belly Up.  

As arguably one of the best guitarists from north of the border, from perhaps anywhere, Cockburn’s dexterity on the fretboard was jaw-dropping. His voice was impossibly still supple and evocative after all these years. 

Cockburn has long explored the dichotomy between his evolving Christian religious conviction and the darkness and pain in the world. “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” captures this dichotomy very well, but its large band arrangement would be saved for another day. 

This solo acoustic evening offered the ambitious nakedness of just us, the singer, his song and his guitar. All of his thought-provoking lyrics are buttressed by incredibly inventive melodies. Often, as in the brilliant “Wondering Where the Lions Are,” the jubilant sounding melody is juxtaposed by the darker lyrics. This dichotomy also underlies the most brilliant part of Brian Wilson’s work, for instance. 

Cockburn switched between several acoustic guitars and presented wonderful versions of “Pacing the Cage” and “Dust and Diesel.” Both songs unwrap the perplexing, complex nature of the world. Both songs presented his observations of the difficulties presented with how mankind walks through the world. “Stolen Land” and “If a Tree Falls” push the darkness front and center. For the latter song, Cockburn deployed a National steel guitar with a loop to haunting effect. His foot would occasionally punch a set of wind chimes, adding an ethereal tone.

One of the four new songs (each written in his new home of San Francisco) entitled “Us All” captured a universal perspective:

Like it or not, the human race
Is us all

History is what it is
Scars we inflict on each other don’t die
But slowly soak into the DNA
Of us all

But it would be folly to conclude that the evening was all about doom and gloom. A joyous new song was written in Maui called “Honey From God,” and it was revelatory. Likewise, his love song from the eve of Y2K “Last Night of the World” was quietly jubilant.

I am put in mind of a poignant scene buried in the middle of a film called “Year of Living Dangerously.” Our hero, bewildered by the squalor confronting him is counselled by his guide about how to handle all the pain and darkness. 

That advice and counsel is echoed by what you will see on Cockburn’s website:

Part of the job of being human is just to try to spread light, at whatever level you can do it.”

(photos by Brad Auerbach)

Brad Auerbach has been a journalist and editor covering the media, entertainment, travel and technology scene for many years. He has written for Forbes, Time Out London, SPIN, Village Voice, LA Weekly and early in his career won a New York State College Journalism Award.