The Studio Theatre in Hamilton Place is an intimate venue, just right for a singer-songwriter (Stephen Fearing), but also very suitable for some blues (Steve Strongman), or the music of The Rankin Sisters, or even the intricate keyboard noodlings of Garth Hudson. In the last week I've been there twice. A week ago Friday for Bruce Cockburn and last Wednesday for Billy Bragg. Both singer-songwriters, I suppose, but both with very political agendas. They were great!
I'm not a big Burce Cockburn fan. I don't know what it is. He plays the kind of music that I usually go for. Guitar based, folky, with a touch of blues, and I generally agree with his message...so what is it about him that I don't like? Maybe I only had room in my ears for Richard Thompson doing that stuff. Anyway, last Friday I went along with my good friend Frank (who is also not a Cockburn fan) and we sat in the front row, just to the right of centre. This is not a good place to sit, when seeing Bruce. Right of centre is definitely not the place to be! But that's where the seats Ann and Emmitt had saved for us happened to be.
Bruce came out dressed in a baggy outfit, dark pants and an oversized jacket, and picked up one of the two green-topped 6-string guitars and began to roll through his songbook. Tunes from the 70s, 80s, 90s and new songs. Not too many "old songs" mainly "middle-aged songs". And a couple of new ones. "Slow Down Fast," "This is Bagdad," mixed with "Wondering Where the Lions Are," "Waiting For a Miracle," and "Lovers in a Dangerous Time." It was good to have so many familiar songs, because some of the others sounded similar, like riffs just designed to carry the words. There's no doubt that Bruce is an extraordinary guitarist, but there was a sameness to much of what he played. The virtuosity lifted these moments. I was touched, personally, by the new song written after visiting his brother (an army doctor in Afghanistan). My own son is training to go there, and Bruce's lament brought me to tears. Cockburn answered three curtain calls and on his last encore claimed he "[didn't] know what to play." He satisfied the rabid fans, and he satisfied us hangers-on too. All in all a fine night.
Wednesday's show with Billy Bragg was also a dandy night of music, and politics. This time our seats (again, saved by Ann and Emmitt) were in the front row, but appropriately well left of centre! Where else would you want to be for the author of "Power in the Union," and "All You Fascists"!!
After an intriguing set by Toronto's Ron Hawkins (check that guy out!) Billy took the stage. He had played for 2 hours the night previous at the Phoenix Concert Theatre in Toronto, and his tour manager wanted to keep this one to 90 minutes. But once Billy got rolling there was no stoppping him. Playing an electric guitar turned up loud, he rocked the joint with songs of love and justice! He sipped from a mug of tea (he called it Throat Coat) and sang in his London drawl, songs from his long career. He called Woody Guthrie "my boss" as he introduced the songs he had completed (with Wilco) for Woody's daughter Norah, for 2 albums. He sang a classic Guthrie children's song about wetting the bed, and Woody's "Ain't Got No Home". He spoke about oxyomorons like "military intelligence" and "american football". The English call it "runny, runny, catchy" since it has very little to do with the pure "footie" they play in the rest of the world. He expressed his displeasure over France "cheating their way to victory over Ireland" referring to Thierry Henry's handball the night before. He played a few tunes on an acoustic guitar, with STRUMMER emblazoned on the front. He went well beyond his 90 minutes, much to the chagrin of the manager. And then he came out for a meet and greet during which he spoke personally to each person who waited. He heard their stories, and answered their questions, signed their scarves, and LPs, CDs, tickets, and shirts. He gave everyone their money's worth. Long live Billy Bragg!