Folk legend Bruce Cockburn returns to Aspen’s Wheeler Opera House
IF YOU GO …
Who: Bruce Cockburn
Where: Wheeler Opera House
When: Saturday, Feb. 17, 7:30 p.m.
How much: $45
Tickets: Wheeler box office; http://www.aspenshowtix.com
Bruce Cockburn has married his art with activism for more than 50 years as a musician, holding up a mirror to the ills of society and holding nothing back.
This singing poet of outrage and wry humor’s best-known songs — 1984’s “If I Had a Rocket Launcher,” about Guatemalan refugees and 1979’s “Wondering Where the Lions Are,” about the threat of nuclear extinction — are as relevant as ever today. Over the decades — and 33 albums — Cockburn has used his guitar and his voice in the social justice tradition of folk music.
The prolific legendary Canadian singer and songwriter, now 72 and living in San Francisco, is still on his mission and speaking truth to power. But don’t expect him to expel any creative energy on the current occupant of the White House.
“I’m not interested in writing about Donald Trump,” Cockburn said in a recent phone interview from a tour stop in Santa Cruz, California. “The whole world is writing about Donald Trump. He lives for attention, and I prefer not to give it to him.”
But the milieu of this divided, dark moment in American history is certainly present throughout his new album “Bone on Bone.” On the standout song “Cafe Society,” for instance, Cockburn offers a grim snapshot of chit-chat in a Peet’s coffee shop: “Talk about the tsunamis and the crazies with their guns/And crazy-ass policemen shooting everything that runs.”
Cockburn calls it “an appreciation of community, which I think is something we don’t get enough of.”
On “States I’m In,” a play on words, he offers a poetic depiction of the lonely state and the spiritual malaise of contemporary life in these United States.
“In some way it’s a summation of my personal history,” he said, “but it’s in the context of what we’re in now.”
“States I’m In” was inspired, Cockburn said, by writing his memoir. Published in 2014 as “Rumors of Glory,” the book led to a rare break from songwriting for Cockburn and a long (for him) six years between albums. As he worked on the book, he thought it might be the end of his songwriting days.
“It wasn’t so much that it made songwriting harder, but all the ideas and energy that would have gone into the songs were going into the book,” he explained. “When I was finished, it had been a long time since I’d written a song — much longer than any dry spell I’d experienced before that.”
The prose writing and the promotion and the book tour shook up Cockburn’s long-held creative routines.
“I wasn’t sure if there were going to be any more songs after that,” he said. “Sometimes life changes and you’re invited to go in new directions. I didn’t know if that would be one of those times.”
Thankfully for his loyal fans, new songs started coming to Cockburn soon after the noise around the book quieted. The result is “Bone on Bone” and a tour that brings Cockburn back to the Wheeler Opera House on Saturday night.
On the tour, he’s playing material from the new record alongside songs from throughout his career, with a full band behind him. The bigger, harder rocking band is new for Aspen. Cockburn has made regular stops here since 2003, but has mostly performed in a solo acoustic setup or with a trio.
Despite his arthritic hands, Cockburn still works magic on six- and 12-string guitars. Looking ahead, he’s hoping to put together another album of instrumental music, following up 2005’s all-instrumental “Speechless” (the title track on “Bone on Bone” also is a classic instrumental folk-jazz fusion) and he hopes to do a covers record at some point.
Cockburn said he’s not much engaged with the current landscape of the music industry — he has a 6-year-old daughter and “since she was born I haven’t paid much attention to anything but being a dad.”
But from what he picks up about the scene while playing at folk festivals, he observes a new generation of singers and songwriters carrying on his legacy of political songwriting and sees creative communities dividing along ideological lines.
“I see the polarization that is the main problem today in American life is also present in the music world,” he said. “So if you hang out around folkies, you’re going to hear a lot of political stuff. If you’re hanging out around country musicians, you’re not going to hear much and if you do it’ll be on the other side.”
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The Youth Art Expo will run Feb. 27 through March 14 at the Aspen Art Museum, showcasing work by young artists from Aspen to Rifle.