Bruce Cockburn ‘In The Round’ at Belfast Nashville Songwriters Festival
Bruce Cockburn is a music legend. Hailed as a “virtuoso on guitar” by the New York Times, his songs tread the line between the spiritual and the political. And this veteran writer and performer shared the stage at Belfast Nashville Songwriters Festival with two local performers, Ken Haddock and Foy Vance.
Apparently it was in the lift on the way to the gig that they discussed who would play first, and this resulted in Foy Vance taking the short straw. Or maybe it was the long straw, but either way, the title track to Vance’s 2013 album Joy of Nothing brought his voice from high and searching, to long and low. “The joy of nothing is a sweeter something/I will hold it in my heart.” There was a low hum from the audience singing with him, then with “Two Shades Of Hope” he gave us sad beauty, clearly asserted with a wood sharp voice.
That voice was preaching to the converted on “Be the Song.” As his guitar gently bounced in the opening bars, the room hushed. I got the impression that people knew what was coming. “If I go to speak/ I will refrain and be the song/ Just be the song.” He didn’t just offer up the goods for his own performances either. Between wise cracks and banter that the audience loved, but could have been better timed; he added haunting atmosphere to Cockburn’s performances by playing his guitar with a bow. He also added another layer to Haddock’s songs with sweet background vocals.
There might have been a bucket list thing going on for Ken Haddock, sitting as he was, ‘In the Round’ with Bruce Cockburn, one of his songwriting heroes. “Everybody has their day in the sun,” he told us. “Tonight I feel like a 10-year old boy who has loved football all his life and tonight he is playing with Lionel Messi.” The evening was to prove however, that Haddock shone in his own understated way. His big, blues-bathed voice opened up the room with “Almost,” throwing up lyrics like “When I let my heart turn to dust, almost/in anger I blew holes right through your ghost.”
Kudos to Mr Haddock, sitting on a stage beside a performer he admires so much. Haddock is based in The Empire Music Hall now, covering a whole gamut of music on his regular nights. It made sense that he did the ultimate cover tonight. Tonight he covered Bruce Cockburn. Tonight he covered “Southlands Of The Heart,” and to make the whole thing 101% outstanding, Cockburn performed a guitar solo in the middle of it. It was just an essence of what ‘In the Round’ is all about.
So what is the big deal about the quiet guy with the glasses up there on stage ‘In the Round’ with our local lads? Bruce Cockburn has been creating music for four decades – 31 albums in total. He’s a folk/rock guitarist and songwriter, a performer, an activist, humanitarian, and a traveller. He’s a practicing Christian who has managed on several occasions to annoy American evangelicalism. He is also gracious, warm and inclusive. For his first round he offered us “After the Rain,” which he penned I think in 1979. The almost Spanish guitar riff running through the song had a graduating melody; it was light fingered and uplifting. The rhythm of the song “Night Train” was indeed that of an ongoing sleeper carriage bouncing on the railway tracks. “It’s the sound someone makes when they’re getting away” he sang, and that is exactly the feeling he was filling the room with. His world eye had started to colour the songs he was singing, and his activism was kicking in with this one. Atmosphere was added with Vance’s bow playing on the guitar.
“These are beautiful songs, these guys are really good” he remarked, tuning his guitar after a particular beauty from Haddock. Cockburn shares the same birth year as Van Morrison; both will be 70 years old this year. On saying that, his easy, sandy baritone was pouring calmly out into the room, and was stirred by hand into the light, fleet notes of the guitar on “Rumours of Glory.” His performance was quality.
Three unique talents played In the Round that night at Belfast Nashville Songwriter’s Festival, and it brought out the best in all of them.
Photo credit: Nurse Ratched