Bruce Cockburn Celebrates 50 Years (Plus Two…) at The Egg
“This tour is the second attempt as a 50th-anniversary tour; it was supposed to happen in 2020,” said singer-songwriter and guitarist Bruce Cockburn – looking forward to singing solo at The Egg Friday, February 25.
Since his 1970 self-named debut, Cockburn has released 34 albums and a new greatest hits package. He explained by phone from his San Francisco home last week how the pandemic postponed his planned 50th-anniversary swing after he’d wrapped a tour following the release of his “Crowing Ignites” instrumental album.
Thereafter, he found himself “out of work.” He said, “When there was nobody doing shows, there was nothing I could do.”
Well, nothing except what he’s always done: Write and record songs.
“Four New Songs” went straight to YouTube as a benefit for the San Francisco Lighthouse Church. “I wanted to get the songs out because a couple of them seemed kind of timely,” said Cockburn in his low-key modest way. Asked if they relate to the pandemic, Cockburn said they describe “the atmosphere it created; well, the combination of the pandemic and Trump’s America,” specifically “about how people treat each other.” The new songs, he said, are “about how our lives are now; it’s more about being alive in the world now.” Then he reflected, “That’s kind of what they all are,” describing all his songs.
They follow the spiritual thread that unites the episodes and incidents of his autobiography “Rumours of Glory.” Cockburn said of his spiritual quest, “It’s a result of looking at how to translate the idea of loving my neighbor into practice.” And he added, “You can’t see people starving to death and say you love then; you’ve got to do something.”
The spirituality of Cockburn’s life and songs turns outward, to work in the world, while Leonard Cohen’s music arguably turns more inward – to compare two much-honored Canadian-born singer-songwriters, though both arguably stand in Joni Mitchell’s shadow, or Neil Young’s.
Even some vintage tunes on “Bruce Cockburn’s Greatest Hits” (a tongue-in-cheek title) seem almost frighteningly prescient. We are all “Lovers in a Dangerous Time” and “Pacing the Cage.”
Two of his “Four New Songs” have elbowed their way into his live show. “Those few songs, in particular, relate to how a lot of us are feeling,” he said, singling out “Orders” as garnering audiences’ attention.
It concludes this way:
The one who lets his demons win
The one we think we’re better than
A challenge great – but as I recall
Our orders are to love them all
Also in the live show, his new “Us All” sounds a similar note of tolerance and equality:
Here we are, faced with choice
Secrets and walls or open embrace
Like it or not, the human race
Is us all
Cockburn isn’t singing the new “On A Roll” live, although it fits his portrait of troubled times. It raises the alarm of crumbling societal norms under the twin assault of the pandemic and what Cockburn calls simply “Trump’s America.”
Howl of anger – howl of grief
Here comes the heat – there’s no relief
Social behavior beyond belief
Cockburn folds “Orders” and “Us All” into a live show that the pandemic delayed by two years but is now refreshed with these clear-eyed assessments of 21st-century humanity in timeless moral terms.
In these – in fact in all his lyrics – Cockburn is realistic but not righteous. And his low-pressure conversational singing style carries his messages with engaging power.
Preparing to tour, Cockburn said, “I practice to try to learn the songs so I don’t screw them up.”
He explained, “There are certain songs that I feel people will be unhappy if they don’t get to hear, you know, some kind of obvious crowd favorites…around those I pack in whatever else fits and whatever I feel like playing.” Cockburn added, “In this case, we’re doing some older songs that people haven’t heard me do for a long time – if ever; I mean some of the people weren’t born when they were new!”
When he’s on stage, Cockburn said, “I still hear people call out, ‘Hey, tell us a story.’ Sometimes I have a story to tell them, sometimes I don’t…I’ve had nights where I didn’t say anything, just sing songs and smile with the people. More often, I talk about whatever I think.”
Looking forward, he said a bit fatalistically, “I don’t think we’ll ever go back to what we thought was normal. But it’d be nice if we could just get all the gears going, you know, and all the wheels rolling, in a way that we recognize.”
Cockburn began the tour that brings him to The Egg on Feb. 25 with a few west coast dates in December, hitting the road “in spite of the suspense around it.” He said, “Nobody knew until minutes before if any of the gigs would have to be canceled.” Nonetheless, “They all went well,” he said. He enjoys playing The Egg, even when his dressing room adjoined that of a rock band playing in the larger Hart Theatre while he prepared to play the Swyer.
Of his west coast shows in December, Cockburn said, “With the people who came, the vibe was wonderful because everybody was so happy to just be out doing something.”
Bruce Cockburn sings at The Egg (Empire State Plaza, Albany) on Friday, Feb. 25. 7:30 p.m. $49.50, $39.50. 518-473-1845 www.theegg.org