Bruce Cockburn is one of those musicians who’ve been established so long you kind of forget about their time in the mainstream.

For a short spell in the mid 1980s, Cockburn’s videos were on MTV and his 1980 record Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws peaked at 45 on the Billboard 200. And although his commercial peak came about 30 years ago, he’s a remained a compelling songwriter and musician. Albums like 1996’s The Charity of Night showed his strong 50s rock influences while Life Short Call Now looked at Canada’s role in a Bush-era America.

Earlier this year Cockburn turned 71.

He’s still on the road, touring through Canada for most of the summer, and still writing songs. There’s no new record to promote and his latest project, a memoir, came out two years ago. His cross-Canada tour this summer is just that: a solo tour, Cockburn, three guitars and a handful of pedals. When I caught him at Orillia’s Opera House on Wednesday, Aug. 17, it was compelling two hours of music.

These days, Cockburn’s starting to look the part of elder statesman. He came on stage in a suit vest and tie, slacks and neatly parted hair. With his round-rimmed glasses, shock of white hair and earring he looks the part of hip grandpa or aging pastor. Affable on stage, he’s quick with a retort to hecklers, and still a force on the acoustic guitar.

He opened the show with a series of songs from his early 80s heyday: “Lovers In A Dangerous Time,” from Stealing Fire and “Tokyo,” off 1980’s Humans. With only his acoustic, both were different arrangements than the familiar versions, but played with his driving acoustic guitar style: he plays a lead with his fingers, while keeping rhythm with his thumb.

It’s different from, say, Neil Young, who strums his guitar as he sings. Where Young’s acoustic guitar simply accompanies his singing, Cockburn’s playing fills the room, sounding like there are two or more people playing on stage.

After finishing ‘Tokyo,” the room broke into applause, which Cockburn almost shrugged off.

“Oh, that old thing?” he joked, adding how the difference in time between the two songs has faded over the years. “Here’s one that’s not as old and more identifiably Canadian,” he said before going into the rapid, clipped song-speak of “Snow Down Fast,” off Life Short Call Fast, and “Pacing the Cage,” a more somber, slower song from The Charity of Night.

 

Of course, the first set’s big moment came with his biggest hit and still one of his catchiest songs:“Wondering Where the Lions Are.” Even without a backing band, Bruce Cockburn’s playing kept to the original’s reggae groove; his nods to the audience between lines in the chorus invited them to shout along with him.

Indeed, the Opera House’s audience was a little chatty with Cockburn, who was quick-witted with return. “It’s Bruce!” shouted one as he walked on stage; “Oh, is that who’s playing?” he quipped. “Last Night of the World!” shouted another; “Hope I’ve got a few more than that,” he replied.

 

After a short break, Cockburn returned to the stage for another set, opening with “After the Rain.”

Before going into the title-song of his memoir, “Rumors of Glory,” and the title track from 1986’s World of Wonders. All were nice performances, but were blown away by a fiery rendition of “If I Had A Rocket Launcher,” one of his most direct and powerful songs. With a singing voice that sometimes borders on a shout, Cockburn’s song about witnessing violence and hearing of horror and death squads in Central America has lost none of it’s resonance or power in the 30-odd years since it was written. He obviously still feels it, grimacing and looking deadly serious during it’s performance.

 

For the next few songs, Bruce Cockburn switched to an acoustic 12-string guitar, which gave a fuller sound to the rest of the night’s songs.

He continued on a political bent with “Call It Democracy,” a stinging indictment of the International Monetary Fund. “Democracy” has also lost none of it’s power and makes a natural pairing with “Rocket Launcher.” It’s stripped down arrangement works, too, with Cockburn’s blistering guitar replacing the slinky funk rhythm.

 

He stuck with the 12-string for the rest of the evening’s set: “God Bless the Children” and “Put It In Your Heart,” before thanking the audience and taking his leave. He returned after a moment or two for an encore. “I have some new songs,” he’d said earlier in the night, “but I don’t know how to them yet for people. Be careful what you wish for.” For his final number, he broke out one of these new songs: “Jesus Train,” a driving and simple song. Here, he repeats a lines to create a statement of faith: “I’m on the Jesus Train.”

Throughout the evening, Cockburn’s performance was on point.

Even after over four decades of performing, his voice has held up well. And his guitar playing is still sharp, mixing rhythm and lead, often playing both at the same time. There were moments where he’d lean back and seamlessly segue into a solo while using his thumb to keep the rhythm going. Other times, he used his instrument sparsely, giving the music just what it needed. It’s not for nothing that Eddie Van Halen supposedly called Bruce Cockburn the best guitarist on the planet.

Set List:

Open / Lovers In a Dangerous Time / Tokyo / Slow Down Fast / Pacing the Cage / Bone In My Ear / Wondering Where the Lions Are / Stolen Land / Diamonds / (set break) / After the Rain /Rumours of Glory / World of Wonders / If I Had A Rocket Launcher / Call It Democracy / God Bless the Children / Put It in Your Heart // Encore: Jesus Train (new song)

Cover photo: Christina Petsinis (via Orillia Opera House/Facebook). Used with permission of the photographer.