(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Saturday, November 9, 2013

History lesson - Bruce Cockburn, The Charity of Night (1997)

A dark night in Amsterdam introduced me to Cockburn's work

I can’t separate The Charity of Night from a thick, smoky Amsterdam evening at the Melkweg in March of 1997. After a day wandering through museums, bars and coffee shops, my friend insisted on catching Bruce Cockburn’s show. I had a vague recollection of his song, “If I Had a Rocket Launcher” (1984), and agreed to tag along. It was a strong, politically-charged show right up until the opening chords of “Birmingham Shadows”, late in the first set. As he slipped into the vamping jazz guitar line and spoke his way through the poetry of the verses, I was transfixed. When the spell faded with the last notes of the song, I headed for the merch table in search of the track. I quickly found it on The Charity of Night, which he had just released. The second set would hit other high points from the album and turn me into a Cockburn fan.

It would be another several days before I could give it a listen, but once I did, it evoked the same magic, especially on “Birmingham Shadows”. The song describes a chance encounter, a moment of discovery frozen in time. The jazzy tune sets a relaxing, hypnotic groove, with Rob Wasserman’s liquid bass permeating the track while Cockburn’s musing vocal is reminiscent of Warren Zevon’s husky tone. “Wearing your shadows all over your sleeve/ Wearing the role of the young upstart,” then “I wear my shadows where they’re harder to see/ But they follow me everywhere/ I guess that should tell me I’m traveling toward light.” His evocative lyrics capture a collision of cultures in Birmingham, Alabama. It’s a refreshing perspective, neither denying the differences nor claiming true understanding. Instead, it aims for simple acceptance. The chorus, which breaks into song, makes it clearer, “Birmingham shadows fall/ You show a little/ I let something show, too.” Cockburn’s lead guitar work is flowing and exploratory, which fits the mood of the piece. At nine and a half minutes, it’s the longest track on the album, but it still grabs me every time I hear it.

It turns out that this release offered me the perfect entry into Cockburn’s music. His work in the ‘70s was awash in Christian imagery, which spoke to a different kind of audience. In the following decade, that evolved into a mix of spirituality and progressive politics. By 1994’s Dart to the Heart, he had toned down much of the righteous anger that drove songs like “Rocket Launcher,” but that album’s folk-rock stylings clung to a rootsy feel that didn't make a strong impression. The Charity of Night, on the other hand, has a surface simplicity as contemporary indie folk, but it’s woven from a wider range of musical textures. Cockburn surrounds himself with jazz players and open-ended parts that set off his restlessly rhythmic guitar playing, accentuating his sonic connection to smooth, sharp players like Mark Knopfler. On “Get Up Jonah”, an intricate guitar is cloaked in heavy vibrato, like shimmers of heat hazing the tone. The guitar fills and warm bass sound come together with a Dire Straits Making Movies sound, but just a touch darker. The lyrics meander from Turkish drummers to secret policemen to cryptic observations reflecting an inner turmoil. The loose collection of ideas lets the song serve as a Rorschach test, asking the listener to name their own source of darkness.

Tension underlies most of the tracks. Even when a tune starts out thoughtful, like the instrumental, “Mistress of Storms”, a moody Spanish guitar fill comes along and suggests that resolution will remain out of reach. The initial melody canters forward, with dreamy vibes mirroring the rhythm guitar. Then the bridge breaks the flow with a staccato, percussive guitar delineating a dead end. The vibes and guitar join forces for a fragile chromatic riff that drags the song to double back to its thoughtful center. Cockburn’s echoed lead is nestled within the bones of the guitar chords as it winds and twists. Gary Burton’s vibe solo takes the song back to a softer version of the bridge, like it’s searching that blind alley for an unseen exit. Subdued, it seems to find a shadowed path forward, avoiding the earlier dissonance. The last time through the progression, though, proves that nothing has changed. The bridge forms a new roadblock and the song ends with the familiar chromatic notes.

Cockburn’s night is sometimes rueful or haunted; it can be reflective or offer up the chance for connection. It can even be charitable by softening memory. Your history may not include a long-ago evening at the Melkweg, but anyone can still appreciate an album that finds solace in the darkness.

(This review first appeared on Spectrum Culture)

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