What Friends Are For

Bruce Cockburn

Vic Theatre - Chicago

March 3, 2000

First Appeared in The Music Box, April 2000, Volume 7, #4

Written by John Metzger


The places that Bruce Cockburn scatters throughout his songs read like some sort of bizarre travelogue to the most remote reaches of the Earth. With many artists, one would have to wonder if they had ever visited these locales, but this is certainly not so with Cockburn. His first hand experiences in Mozambique, Southern Mexico, and Saharan Africa become fodder for his music; they become messages to his fans, transporting them to far off worlds and connecting with them on a deeply personal level.

Cockburn has never been shy about standing up for what he believes. Many songs like the biting political tirade Call It Democracy take on a particular cause and attack the status quo. On others, like Last Night of the World, the call to action (in this case the 1983 plight of refugees in Southern Mexico) is obscured by both the passage of time and by a message of hope that in essence just as simply could be viewed as a gorgeous love song.

It is, in fact, this flame of hope that Cockburn sees in all of us. Yet, like a dual-edged sword, it both allows him to stick to his ideals and wish for a better tomorrow while also causing great pain as he witnesses it twinkle endlessly in the hearts and minds of the hopeless. Herein lies the basis for understanding Cockburnís music and the glue that bound his songs together into a cohesive performance on March 3 at the Vic Theatre in Chicago.

Throughout his two sets, Cockburn intermingled songs and ideas to form lyrical dualities, juxtaposing good and bad; darkness and light; political and apolitical; love and hate. On If I Had a Rocket Launcher, he conjured up war-torn images of Central America in the 1980s, and on Use Me While You Can, Cockburn underscored his lyrics on the desertification in Mali with a resonator guitar, evoking a weepy, blues-fused sadness with impeccable precision. Balancing these, of course, were the love songs. Mango flirtatiously danced its way across a jazz-folk groove, while Look How Far glimmered with the last rays of light from a romantic sunset, as singer and lover open their hearts to each other and the whole universe.

This sense of duality was further underscored as Cockburn alternated between acoustic and electric guitars throughout the evening. This served to alter both mood and feeling based on the instrument he selected. Thereís no question that Cockburn is an underrated guitarist, and as the night wore on, it quickly became apparent at just how good he is. Those less familiar with his wide-ranging talent no doubt left impressed and found that his name would certainly not be out of place on a list that included the likes of Eric Clapton and Mark Knopfler.

In addition, Cockburn was backed by the spendid rhythm section of bassist Steve Lucas and drummer Ben Riley. The trio formed a tight bond with one another, which allowed them plenty of opportunity for instrumental interplay. On Let the Bad Air Out, Cockburn explored a pattern of rhythmic circularity against a backdrop of percolating bass, which in turn was punctuated by the thwack of a drum beat with perfect heart-stopping precision. Later, the group delved deep into the extended instrumental Down to the Delta, bursting the center wide open into a free-flowing jazz excursion that gave both Cockburn and Lucas an opportunity to demonstrate their deft skill.

When all is said and done, however, the concert hinged upon Cockburnís well-crafted lyrics ó his portraits of hope and hopelessness and his poetic descriptions of darkness and light. "Sometimes the road leads to dark places. Sometimes the darkness is your friend," sang Cockburn on a heartfelt rendition of Pacing the Cage. Later he countered with encouragement, taking little shavings from his ration of light and offering them "against those moments when the darkness blows under your door. Isnít that what friends are for?," he sang. Yes, indeed, it is, and it certainly is what great songwriters are for as well.

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