Bruce Cockburn is a man of contrasts; political but polite, Christian but liberal, serious but jocund. The latter was exemplified during his nearly two-and-a-half-hour set Tuesday night at City Winery, part of a North American tour supporting his 31st studio release, Small Source of Comfort.
Though the album is composed of a mix of songs written over the past number of years, Cockburn’s recent visit to a Canadian forces stationed in Afghanistan was most strongly evoked onstage: a camouflage net backdrop, combat boots, harem pants, and bandolier guitar strap. Featuring “Lovers in a Dangerous Time” near the beginning of his set ostensibly emphasized our tumultuous present. However, he quickly countered with the hilarious new track, “Call Me Rose”, an imagined reincarnation of Nixon as a poor single mother, which energized the crowd. At one point Cockburn received a request to play the theme song to Franklin, a Canadian children’s cartoon he composed for. A hilarious exchange ensued: the crowd raucously demanding “Franklin” and Cockburn steadfastly refusing to indulge them. From this he managed to transition to the gravitas of “Each One Lost”, a funereal song reflecting on the sacrifices of Canadian troops. The solemn tone was soon palliated by the equally poised but beatific intro of “Wondering Where the Lions Are”.
Supporting Cockburn were violinist Jenny Scheinman (who opened the evening with some of her own songs) and percussionist Gary Craig. The trio produced a range of sounds and textures, notably on “Five Fifty-One.” Scheinman’s vocals and violin playing typically paralleled each other: hoarser lower tones giving way to pellucid highs. However, she was unrestrained in creating the most dexterous tones and scratches from her fiddle when the moment called for it (e.g. “Five Fifty-One”, “Comets of Kandahar”, and “Albert”). She also made her own contribution to contrast with the warm-sounding “The Littlest Prisoner”. While she carried the lion’s share of soloing, Cockburn’s pugnacious picking carried “If I Had a Rocket Launcher”. Like Small Source, Cockburn closed his show with something old yet new, the succinctly beautiful “Gifts”, a resurrected relic from his earliest coffeehouse days.