Bruce Cockburn – Pacing the Cage (2013)

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Bruce Cockburn, in a moment of serendipity, is beginning another tour today even as a documentary about his celebrated 2008 solo jaunt is finding its way to DVD.

Pacing the Cage opens with “Lovers in a Dangerous Time” (from 1984’s Stealing Fire, home to Cockburn’s out-of-nowhere U.S. radio hit “If I Had Rocket Launcher”) — and it’s a song that remains as powerful a testament as any to his canny blend of love-lorn singer-songwriter introspection, hard-eyed socio-political insights and heart-felt spiritualism. (One fan, trying to put it all into context, calls Cockburn a mixture of Bob Dylan and Gandhi.)

Bono, who kicks off the True North film with a recitation of “Rocket Launcher,” later stole a Cockburn line (“kick the darkness until it bleeds daylight”) for U2’s “God Part II” on Rattle and Hum. In the end, that may be as famous as Cockburn is ever going to get in America.

Pacing the Cage frames his legacy in terms that make it clear that was never the point, anyway.

Over the years, Cockburn has remained a denizen of the concert trail, always on the road, always playing in tucked away places. Over time, in these intimate settings, he’s come to call it home. “It’s the context in which I feel most natural,” he admits at one point in the Joel Goldberg-directed film, “and most like myself.”

Yet, until the tour that’s traced on Pacing the Cage, Cockburn had never released a solo live album. As many revelations as could be found on the resulting Slice O’ Life, the songs find new life among the frank and open conversations that Cockburn shares here.

The truth is, he can’t quite place what happens on stage, the way that this interaction nourishes him. And at the same time, he’s deeply wounded about his own imperceptible mistakes on stage. In this way, Cockburn is compelled to keep at it. And his fans, though never far reaching, have remained deeply committed to his unique brand of musical craftsmanship.

Through he’s ultimately found resonance whether dealing in quiet folkie rumination, combustible world music, or straight-ahead rock sounds, Cockburn’s hasn’t always been an easy trail to follow. And he’s bluntly honest, in his quiet way, about that, too. “The point is not that I’m telling them how they have to think,” Cockburn says. “The point is this is what I saw, this is what I felt. Check it out. If it’s not interesting, don’t check it out anymore. But this is what I can offer.”

Cockburn, for all of the praise from outsized personalities like Bono, was never about ego — likely another thing that kept him from the wider fame he’s always deserved. Instead, Cockburn displays throughout Pacing the Cage a determined focus on both the spiritual and the emotional — a stance that has always been far too personal, too closely held and furtively conveyed for stadium stages.

In that way, the one-on-one interactions that these smaller shows provide were always better conduits. And there’s comfort — when you start getting angry about how few have shared in his rangy gift — knowing that Bruce Cockburn’s still out there, somewhere.

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Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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