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Bruce Cockburn looking for a light

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With the country's economic and social fabric seeming to deteriorate more and more each day, it's easy to see why so many musicians write songs about despair. It's difficult to find concrete reasons for hope, and it's harder still to make a positive statement without sounding insipid and naive. What made Bruce Cockburn's recent appearance at the Riviera so welcome was that he avoided this trap, delivering a message of hope and affirmation in the face of the grave problems his songs describe without sounding self-satisfied or insincere.

Initially a folksinger, the Canadian Cockburn labored through the 70s and early 80s without particular distinction, garnering a few minor hits ("Wondering Where the Lions Are," "Coldest Night of the Year"). Then a 1983 journey through Central American refugee camps as an observer for OXFAM galvanized his growing political consciousness. Stealing Fire, the record that followed, contained "Nicaragua," an embarrassingly earnest Marxist affirmation (to be fair, it was a lot easier to embrace the Sandinistas when Ronald Reagan was warning that they might overrun southern Texas). But it also contained "If I Had a Rocket Launcher," a chilling song in which Cockburn describes standing in a camp in Mexico and looking south across the border, where Guatemalan helicopters hover waiting to gun down peasants fleeing their government's anticommunist repressions. The song found its author torn between his pacifist ideals and a rage at his powerlessness that made him want to blow those helicopters out of the air. Powered by the tension of this conflict, "Rocket Launcher" quickly became the song with which Cockburn was most closely identified.

Stealing Fire and the records that followed (World of Wonders and Big Circumstance) brought Cockburn some recognition as an articulate and compassionate political artist, but not the commercial success that performers such as U2 and Midnight Oil (tackling subject matter similar to Cockburn's) attained during pop music's post-Live Aid era of heightened political sensibility. That's in part because his lyrical reach sometimes exceeds his grasp, resulting in clumsy and overwrought poetry. Even "If a Tree Falls," Cockburn's stirring plea on behalf of the planet's endangered rain forests, contains such deathless lines as "Take out trees . . . inject a billion burgers worth of beef / Grain eaters / Methane dispensers."

A larger reason Cockburn hasn't received more attention is his musical sensibility. Rooted in folk music, jazz, and Sun Records-era rock 'n' roll (with its predominant country-music strain), Cockburn's songs are melodic and understated rather than brash and aggressive, a style not easily embraced by stadium-size audiences.

The singer enhanced that quiet by enlisting roots-rock cult hero T-Bone Burnett to produce his new record, Nothing but a Burning Light, which provided nearly half of the material for the Riv concert. Burnett's economical, nuanced production eschewed Cockburn's recent penchant for jazz keyboards and world-music explorations to focus on his chief assets: the husky bass voice, country blues melodies that would sound at home on Bob Dylan's early records, and electric guitar playing that marries jazz chords with Carl Perkins finger picking and twang to sound like a more biting Mark Knopfler. Larry Klein's tasteful bass playing, Jim Keltner's stealthy drumming, and especially the gospel organ fills of Booker T. Jones (of "Green Onions" fame) add to Burning Light's subtle pleasures, enhancing its hushed, almost reverential quality. The result is a record of tuneful, contemplative folk songs, brisk, sunny exultations of country life, and haunting rock ("A Dream Like Mine").

Cockburn's renewed enthusiasm for rock's roots carried over into his concert, enlivening much of his music. With the help of an impeccable backing band, Cockburn opened his songs up, musically recasting them or making their sources explicit. He transformed "See How I Miss You," on the record a salsa number with steel drums, into a rollicking, country-picking duet with his fine guitarist Colin Linden; he brought out the doo-wop roots of "Coldest Night of the Year." He invoked Chuck Berry in name and music on the unreleased "Let the Bad Air Out" and employed a Bo Diddley beat, courtesy of light-handed drummer Miche Pouliot, on the powerful "Stolen Land."

Unfortunately, these energetic moments were just moments. Cockburn's repeated tendency to follow an up-tempo song with a slow one kept him from building momentum, and his emphasis on melody and tasteful instrumentation kept him from ever really ripping things up. Perhaps that's why one fan called out "Let's go, Bruce!" near the end of the show. (The version of "People See Through You" that followed was searing, but I think Nirvana is safe.)

Though Cockburn's music isn't raucous, it doesn't lack for emotional power. His ability to create moving music without grandstanding or overamplification was most apparent during "Rocket Launcher." Confronted with the perennial problem of how to breathe new life into a signature song (how badly must Lou Reed want never again to have to perform "Sweet Jane"?), Cockburn stripped the song down to his quiet picking and Linden's ghostly guitar chords and sang it in a voice of shock and horror, an arrangement that kept the song from degenerating into a crowd pleaser and left its impact intact.

"Rocket Launcher" is the closest thing Cockburn has to a rock anthem along the lines of U2's "(Pride) In the Name of Love," Springsteen's "Born in the USA," or Peter Gabriel's "Biko," and it's problematic for the same reasons they are. Effective and valuable inasmuch as they provide a catharsis for the fans, they often lead an audience to mistake its aroused passion against injustice for a fulfillment of its obligations to do something about it. To the extent that these songs succeed at all, it's as aesthetic, not political, expressions of personal, not public, concern. On those terms, Cockburn's quiet, understated approach serves him well--it's less likely to mislead audience members to thinking their emotional response is equivalent to action. "Rocket Launcher" doesn't put an end to the atrocities in Central America; instead it produces internal emotional changes in the audience, much like the ones Cockburn experienced on a larger scale.

What's remarkable is that he witnessed such atrocities without losing hope. It doesn't seem coincidental that he followed "Rocket Launcher" with the Celtic-tinged "Child of the Wind," which contains these lines: "Little round planet / In a big universe / Sometimes it looks blessed / Sometimes it looks cursed / Depends on what you look at, obviously / But even more it depends on the way that you see." What keeps that statement from being as unsupportably precious as the song's unfortunate title is that Cockburn's talking about totalitarian repression, environmental madness, the continuing oppression of native North Americans. Knowing that he can pay attention to such things and remain hopeful rather than feel the need to shield himself from them gives his affirmation depth and makes it heartening.

Cockburn's courage has a source that's not commonly found in pop music. Performing Blind Willie Johnson's 1930 blues spiritual "Soul of a Man" during the first of his two encores, Cockburn intoned, "I read the Bible often / I try to read it right / As far as I can understand / [The soul] ain't nothing but a burning light." The song isn't campy musical affectation; Cockburn, a professed Christian, means it. His religious beliefs place him at odds with the image most of the pop marketplace projects. They seem to clash with his leftist political convictions as well, given Christianity's perceived association these days with Reagan-era new-right xenophobia. But Cockburn's songs tend toward not patronizing moralism but a deep reverence for God's creation.

This appreciation of creation's spiritual nature links Cockburn philosophically with the Native Americans whose cause he championed in songs like "Indian Wars" and "Stolen Land." In "A Dream Like Mine," a galloping rendition of which closed the show, Cockburn describes a Native American drawing power from the earth as he takes a stand against the white man's latest effort to despoil it: "Beautiful rocks--beautiful grass / Beautiful soil where they both combine / Beautiful river, covering sky / Never thought of possession, but all this was mine / When you know even for a moment / That it's your time / Then you can walk with the power / Of a thousand generations." His faith gives an added dimension to his environmental concerns: "This is something other," he warned in "If a Tree Falls" about global defoliation. "Busy monster eats dark holes in the spirit world / Where wild things have to go to disappear / Forever."

A number of his songs suggest that Cockburn also seems to number human sexuality among God's blessings. His love songs are imbued with a loving and respectful sense of eros, in welcome contrast to the cheap commodity that sex amounts to in most pop music. "There are eight million mysteries / In the naked body," he sang on the impossibly gentle "One of the Best Ones." In "Lovers in a Dangerous Time," Cockburn sings about "These fragile bodies of touch and taste / This vibrant skin, this hair like lace / Spirits open to the thrust of grace." (That Cockburn's depictions lack for bawdiness probably has more to do with his sensitive-folkie nature than his spiritual beliefs; after all, Prince believes in God too.)

At the end of his first encore, Cockburn brought out Burnett and opening act Sam Phillips (Burnett's wife) to accompany him on "Waiting for a Miracle," the title track of Cockburn's singles collection. The song was more than a trite jam session; it was an occasion for coming together, an expression of community. Cockburn handed his guitar over to Burnett and delivered an emphatic, expectant petition for a world in which "peace and balance are the rule," while Phillips and the band joined him in rich, swaying gospel harmony on the choruses. For a few elegant and wonderful moments, Cockburn, Phillips, Burnett, and the band suggested what the world would be like if men and women lived in harmony with the earth and each other.

That such glimpses of a better world are fleeting perhaps matters less than the fact that they occur at all. On "Lovers in a Dangerous Time," Cockburn declares, "Nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight / Got to kick at the darkness 'til it bleeds daylight." Banishing the hopelessness, cheap cynicism, and insularity that are the easiest responses to this frightening world, Cockburn affirmed for a few hours that, though the obstacles are many and great, the light is still worth hoping and working for.

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