Bruce Cockburn has always been a restless spirit. Over the course of four decades, the celebrated Canadian artist has travelled to the corners of the earth out of humanitarian concerns—often to trouble spots experiencing events that have led to some of his most memorable songs. Going up against chaos, even if it involves grave risks, can be necessary to get closer to the truth.
Small Source of Comfort, Cockburn’s 31st album, is his latest adventurous collection of songs of romance, protest and spiritual discovery. The album, primarily acoustic yet rhythmically savvy, is rich in Cockburn’s characteristic blend of folk, blues, jazz and rock. As usual, many of the new compositions come from his travels and spending time in places like San Francisco and Brooklyn to the Canadian Forces base in Kandahar, Afghanistan, jotting down his typically detailed observations about the human experience.
“Each One Lost” and “Comets of Kandahar,” one of five instrumentals on the album, stem from a trip Cockburn made to war-torn Afghanistan in 2009. The elegiac “Each One Lost” was written after Cockburn witnessed a ceremony honoring two young Canadian Forces soldiers who had been killed that day and whose coffins were being flown back to Canada. It was, recalls Cockburn, “one of the saddest and most moving scenes I’ve been privileged to witness.”
In contrast, one light-hearted number reflects Cockburn’s frequently underappreciated sense of humor. “Called Me Back” is a comic reflection on the frustrations of waiting for a return phone call that never comes. Meanwhile, listeners are bound to be intrigued by “Call Me Rose,” written from the point of view of disgraced former U.S. president Richard Nixon, who receives a chance at redemption after being reincarnated as a single mother living in a housing project with two children.
As always, there’s a spiritual side to Cockburn’s latest collection, best reflected on the closing “Gifts,” a song written in 1968 and but recorded here for the first time, and “The Iris of the World,” which opens the album. The latter includes the humorously rueful line, “I’m good at catching rainbows, not so good at catching trout.”
As a songwriter, Cockburn is revered by fans and musicians alike. His songs have been covered by such diverse artists as Elbow, Jimmy Buffett, Judy Collins, the Skydiggers, Anne Murray, Third World, Chet Atkins, k.d. lang, Barenaked Ladies, Maria Muldaur and the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia. As a guitarist, he is considered among the world’s best. The New York Times called Cockburn a “virtuoso on guitar,” while Acoustic Guitar magazine placed him in the esteemed company of Andrés Segovia, Bill Frisell and Django Reinhardt.
Those songs, along with his humanitarian work, have brought Cockburn a long list of honours, including 13 Juno Awards, an induction into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, a Governor General’s Performing Arts Award and several international awards. In 1982, he was made a Member of the Order of Canada and was promoted to Officer in 2002. Last year, the Luminato festival honored Cockburn’s extensive songbook with a tribute concert featuring such varied guests as jazz guitarist Michael Occhipinti, folk-rapper Buck 65, country rockers Blackie and The Rodeo Kings, country-folk singers Sylvia Tyson and Amelia Curran, pop artists the Barenaked Ladies and Hawksley Workman, and folk-pop trio The Wailin’ Jennys.
Widely regarded as one of the most brilliant songwriters of her generation, Suzanne Vega emerged as a leading figure of the folk-music revival of the early 1980s when, accompanying herself on acoustic guitar, she sang contemporary folk songs of her own creation in Greenwich Village clubs. Since the release of her self-titled, critically acclaimed 1985 debut album, she has given sold-out concerts in many of the world's best-known halls. In performances devoid of outward drama that nevertheless convey deep emotion, Vega sings in a distinctive, clear vibrato-less voice that has been described as "a cool, dry sandpaper- brushed near-whisper" and as "plaintive but disarmingly powerful."
Bearing the stamp of a masterful storyteller, Suzanne has tended to focus on city life, ordinary people and real world subjects in her music. Notably succinct and understated, often cerebral but also streetwise, her lyrics invite multiple interpretations. In short, Suzanne Vega's work is immediately recognizable, as utterly distinct and thoughtful, and as creative and musical now, as it was when her voice was first heard on the radio over 20 years ago.
In 2011 in New York City she premiered Carson McCullers Talks About Love, an original play written and performed by Ms. Vega with songs she wrote with Tony Award-winner Duncan Sheik (Spring Awakening). Suzanne has also embarked on a project to re-imagine her own songbook in a stripped down and intimate manner, creating 4 new thematic albums that was released over the course of 2010-2012 called the Close-Up series.