When Bruce Cockburn took the stage at the Coach House on Friday night, he apologized for interrupting the merriment and conversation within the bustling supper club.
Even after 27-plus years, Cockburn still approaches his audiences with gratitude and respect. So it wasn’t a surprise to see the Toronto-based artist pouring his heart and soul into his enthusiastically received two-hour show. On some songs, performed with his eyes closed in concentration, he seemed to inhabit another zone of consciousness; he doesn’t just sing a number, he feels it, intensely.
Best known for his political material about Third World struggle and oppression, Cockburn earned rousing responses after delivering such liberation anthems as “Call It Democracy,” “Stolen Land” and “If I Had a Rocket Launcher.” Perhaps his most recognizable song, he wrote 1984’s “Rocket Launcher” after a visit to Guatemala left him angry over the people’s suffering at the hands of an oppressive military government.
But overt political expression made up only a slice of the show. Many of the evening’s more personal songs came from Cockburn’s most recent “The Charity of Night” album. The performance of its title track, a long and hauntingly poetic piece rendered beautifully by Cockburn and his backing band (a bass player and drummer), was a concert highlight.
A strong jazz element courses through much of the new material, and the dexterous playing of jazz vibraphonist Gary Burton accentuates that vein on “The Charity of Night” disc. On stage, songs from the album, like “Pacing the Cage” and “Birmingham Shadows,” sounded a bit incomplete without the vibraphones, although the drummer did switch to vibes for one number.
The stripped-down lineup gave Cockburn more room to stretch out as a guitar player. A graduate of Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music, the 52-year-old artist is more than just a singer-songwriter. His extended, jazz-accented guitar solo on “Birmingham Shadows” was tremendously lyrical and moving. And his instrumental work on “Call It Democracy” rocked with passion.
Because of Cockburn’s reputation as an activist performer, some might have expected him to expound on his political ideology between songs. But that was hardly the case. Except for briefly explaining the problem of land mines in some war-torn countries to introduce “The Mines of Mozambique,” he let his songs do the educating.