Review: Poet, Guitar Virtuoso, Iconic Vocalist Bruce Cockburn Plays Saskatoon (Feb. 9th, 2023)
by Scott Roos
Bruce Cockburn… He’s one of Canada’s most beloved singer-songwriters who has now been going strong for over five decades. He’s a poet, a strong political advocate, an environmentalist, guitar virtuoso, amazingly unique vocalist, and all around good dude. Many of us who were essentially raised on his music could go on and on and on and on. He’s a legend; as Canadian as… I don’t know… Sitting eating an order of back bacon and maple syrup on a gravy drenched poutine in a booth at Tim Horton’s. Actually, insert your own metaphor about Canada and Cockburn and I’m sure it will work. Don’t let my feeble attempt at one get in the way of something better that you could come up with.
At any rate, like most Canadians my age, I first encountered his music through the wonders of MuchMusic and the medium of the music video. “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” and, of course, “Lovers in a Dangerous Time” were strong standouts in the 80’s era Cockburn lexicon. The videos for these two tracks in particular seemed to be in constant rotation back then and it didn’t take much to be awestruck at how great the songs themselves were. Generation X meet Bruce Cockburn. The popularity of these tracks made him one of “our guys”. It’s crazy to think that next year will be 40 years since both these fine songs were released.
Fast forward a few more years and “Lovers” would come to the fore again. Tribute albums were a thing in the late 80’s and into the early to mid 90’s. Seems like every artist of any significance was having one made. Kicking at the Darkness was one such album that was made. Released in 1991 by Intrepid Records, it features 13 Cockburn tracks including a cover of “Lovers in a Dangerous Time” by then upstart Scarborough, Ontario based folksters The Barenaked Ladies.
“We felt like 'Lovers in a Dangerous Time' in the early to mid 80's was a big part of our growing up; watching that video, hearing the song on the radio,” reminisced former Barenaked Ladies vocalist Steven Page in a 2019 interview with me.
“So we just decided ‘why don't we do (Lovers in a Dangerous Time) and we'll do it in our style' which was kind of a bluegrass influenced, folk/rock style and I remember being in the studio and making that and the people from the label were like 'I think you should do it a little more straight forward and a little more four on the floor drumbeat',” Page Recalls, “Really, what they wanted us to do was just do it the same way that Cockburn had done and we pushed back because that's what you do when you're young and full of I don't know whether it's of self confidence or stupidity. So we did (the song) our way and I think (the record label guys) weren't very happy with it at first but then the decision was made that we were going to be the single from the record and they would make the video and that really was what got us going as far as the public eye in Canada.”
This track would be the Barenaked Ladies first significant chart hit in Canada, reaching No. 16 , thirty one years ago the week of February 15, 1992. The accompanying video of the Barenaked Ladies version of the song is also arguably almost as iconic or even just iconic as Cockburn’s. It features the band playing on the back of a pickup truck whilst driving around their hometown of Scarborough. The guys look young, all with something to prove but, at the same time, you can also tell that they are right on the cusp of breakout success and, although I’ve never really envisioned them as cocky, more boy next door, I think they knew they were soon about to become "kind of a big deal". You can see it on their faces.
More importantly, though, I think it put Cockburn and his artistry back into the Canadian limelight again. He hadn’t really gone away, mind you. Maybe it’s more accurate to say that it reamplified his music for some that had maybe forgotten about how great it was including myself and, in my personal opinion, many of my generation.
Strangely enough, according to Page, Cockburn initially didn’t like their version of his song. He’d done a few interviews in the press that were dismissive of what the Barenaked Ladies has done with it. That being said, it took some getting used to but eventually he came around to appreciating it for what it was.
“A few years (after we released our version) we were playing a festival in Boston and he was on the same festival billing and he left a note in our bus that apologized for what he had said that told us he had had it wrong and 'I love what you guys do and I love what you do with the song' and I think he was grateful for the extra attention it brought back on him as well,” Page stated.
Since the release of their cover version, Page has been able to share the stage with Cockburn which, to him, has been a thrill. Even though Page has had a modicum of success as a solo artist and achieved a heaping portion of popularity with the Barenaked Ladies, he still realizes the significance of being able to sing and play with Cockburn; especially when it comes to “Lovers in a Dangerous Time” which they performed together for a televised post 9/11 concert.
“He is one of the greatest songwriters, guitarists and singers ever and a really great guy so it's all worked out very nicely,” remarked Page.
Personally, I have encountered Bruce on a few separate occasions. The first time was in 2012 when I did a telephone interview with him. I was just getting into radio at the time and was doing a bit of press for a festival in Yellowknife. It was a classic case of inexperience for me and, even though Cockburn was very gracious and giving of his time, I felt like I had no idea what I was doing. In the immortal words of the Monty Python guys in their movie The Holy Grail, “I got better”. But I was pretty green in the industry back then. I would meet him later in person at the festival backstage and then again in 2017 when he came to Yellowknife to perform on Canada Day. Both times, he was super chill and friendly.
More importantly, though, I have now seen him perform on three separate occasions. The first two were outdoor “festival style” settings in Yellowknife and the most recent, this past Thursday, Feb. 9th indoors at TCU Place in Saskatoon. This show was billed as “An Evening With Bruce Cockburn”. It was the same format as I had seen him in 2017 and 2012 but this time in a more intimate, “soft seater” arrangement.
I think in general this “theatre” style setting suits Cockburn very well. There’s a unique artistry to what he does. His guitar arpeggiations, sometimes punctuated by trademark, jazzlike dissonance, gently rain down on you whilst his voice, dripping with sweet melodies, is punctuated by the poetry of his lyrics. When you’re in the “captive” setting of a theatre you’re more focused on the total package of what he can bring to the table and you end up appreciating him all the more. There was no backing band. It was just Cockburn and his guitar and that, in and of itself, was mesmerizing.
In Saskatoon, Cockburn trotted out some of the obligatory faves like “Wondering Where the Lions Are”, “If a Tree Falls” and, of course, “Lovers in a Dangerous Time” but, as we all learned during the set, he’s also getting ready to release an album in the spring. So, he played three or four songs from it which was a pleasant surprise. It’s also very apparent from hearing these new songs that he still has things to say. His philosophical soapbox still firmly entrenched within the collective consciousness of his country.
Saskatoon was an amazing experience; truly memorable. His stage banter was on point. His stories in between songs had us hanging on every word. Sometimes his off the cuff musings were just as interesting as the things he had obviously planned on saying. His musicianship was top notch. His songs, from every era, are still as relevant and timely as they ever have been or will be. In short, hopefully I’ll get to see this Canadian icon perform again. It’s been well worth it each time.
*photos of Cockburn in Saskatoon by Deanna Roos