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Bruce Cockburn - Songs With Philosophy, and the Beat of a Thumb
POSTED: MARCH 6TH, 2002
The hardest-working right thumb in show business may belong to Bruce Cockburn, the Canadian songwriter, who played a sold-out solo show at the Bottom Line on Saturday night. With quiet virtuosity, on his acoustic guitar, Mr. Cockburn materializes chords and modal filigrees while his thumb provides the music's pulse and its foundation. It is at once a deep Celtic drone, a drumbeat and the throb of a vigilant conscience.

Mr. Cockburn (pronounced COE- burn) has just released a retrospective album, "Anything Anytime Anywhere" (Rounder), that sums up a repertory balanced between personal hopes and political anger. They're the songs of a thoughtful, compassionate man who refuses to take his comfortable life for granted. A song like "Lovers in a Dangerous Time" sums up his perspective: "One day you're waiting for the sky to fall/ The next you're dazzled by the beauty of it all."

In a career that now extends more than 30 years, Mr. Cockburn has always been more philosophical than confessional. His songs measure private feelings against the larger currents of history and spiritual aspirations. In two sets on Saturday night, he sang travelogues like "Tibetan Side of Town," in which a trip to Katmandu sets him thinking about "a culture crushed by Chinese greed." He sang about revelation in "Mango"; he mused over the way age erodes idealism in "Pacing the Cage."

He warned about tyranny masked as security in "The Trouble With Normal" and denounced the impact of globalization in "Call It Democracy," which envisions "international loan sharks backed by the guns of market hungry military profiteers." A new song, written since Sept. 11, lamented "terrible deeds done in the name of tunnel vision and fear of change."

Mr. Cockburn doesn't raise his homey, peat-smoked voice when his words grow defiant or indignant. He just gives it an extra shade of calm resolve. Through the years, Mr. Cockburn has worked with various backup bands, dipping into jazz, country and reggae along with folk- rock. But when he plays solo, he dissolves the production styles of various eras and his songs take on a contemplative purity. During "World of Wonders," he played a stretch of solo guitar that sent scales darting gracefully above a complex finger-picked pattern. In a song about finding radiance amid fear and squalor, it was a thumb-powered epiphany.
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