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Concert Review: Bruce Cockburn, Richard Thompson, Dar Williams in Northampton

It was a folkie's dream program: Richard Thompson, Bruce Cockburn and Dar Williams together in an outdoor concert.

The biggest surprise of this gathering of stars was that it took place in tiny Northampton, Massachusetts, population 30,000, at a normally quiet park on the outskirts. Northampton has a thriving music scene, and all of these performers have been frequent guests at the Iron Horse Music Hall and other local stages--in fact, Williams lives in the area--but concerts on this scale are rare. Most of the other stops on this tour were much larger cities. It was certainly one of the largest gatherings to take place in town in recent years.

The scene at the park looked like a big city this time. Every lot was full, and people were parked on grassy fields. Long lines of walkers were drifting in from their cars, and were met at the gate with big-city prohibitions on picnic coolers. There was a rumor that they almost didn't allow lawn chairs, but changed their minds--a good thing, too, because it had been raining all week.

Normally, concerts at this venue start on the late side and are uncrowded, so we made our way to the park in a leisurely way, arriving about 20 minutes after the scheduled start. It was a shock to hear the last notes of the opening act as we drove in, and by the time we had parked and unloaded our car, walked almost a mile to the concert, and found a few square feet for our picnic blanket at the very back of the theater, we'd missed most of Cockburn's 50-minute solo acoustic set. This was a major disappointment, as we'd seen both the others before, and the four or five songs we managed to hear were excellent. Cockburn's voice is as strong as ever, and his material still fresh. He still wears his politics openly, and the craft of his singing continues to get better. But I had to content myself with throwing his latest CDs on at home.

Cockburn's recent work continues his struggle for peace and justice, his agony over war, with songs like "The Mines of Mozambique, " from The Charity of Night"--his first of two recent releases on Rykodisc, and his 23rd album since 1970:

"Rusted husks of blown up trucks/
Line the roadway north of town/
Like passing through a sculpture gallery/
War is the artist, but he's sleeping now."

Well known in Canada, Cockburn has had 13 gold and 3 platinum albums there. But in the U.S., his acclaim is more cultish. Alternative FM stations were playing him in the mid-80's, when his album, Stealing Fire made a dent in the charts with his best-selling single in the U.S., "If I Had a Rocket Launcher." But he never really made it into the mainstream musical culture here. Hopefully this tour with Thompson--to whom he's been favorably compared by a number of reviewers--and Williams will increase his visibility, as he sure deserves it.

Thompson brought the most fans out, including lots of college-age students from nearby UMass, as well as a legion of older folk who remember his glory days with Fairport Convention, his ex-wife Linda, and his solo career.

Thompson is known for his guitar work--but I find myself drawn more to his introspective lyrics. For example:
"Do you close your eyes to see miracles/
Do you raise your face to kiss angels/
Do you float on air..."

Many of his songs tell vivid stories: of a soldier who laments,
"War was my love and my friend and companion/
What did I care for the pretty and plain"

to an ex-lover lamenting the lost French kisses in the rain, remembering the ghost of the relationship: "At least we loved too much, felt too much, cared too much."

Thompson's set included songs about an outlaw biker balancing his relationships with his girlfriend and his '52 Vincent (as he dies, he says, "I see angels in leather and chrome...coming to carry me home"), a 2-minute version of Hamlet, lots of songs of love lost and found, and this lament about corporate greed in the music business:

"Pharaoh he sits in his tower of steel/
We're all living in Egypt Land/
Tell me brother, don't you understand/
We're all working for the Pharaoh"

The thing about Thompson, though, is that each of his songs is a gem when examined alone, but all of them sound pretty similar. As his set stretched on for 13 songs, I found myself wishing he would stop. He played for something over an hour, and I wished that Cockburn had played that long instead.

By the time Dar Williams took the stage, the sun was going down and a lot of the Thompson groupies had left. Their loss was our gain; we could get close enough to actually see the performers.

Unlike the others, Dar had a band with her, which made it hard at times to hear her voice. Her singing has improved a lot in the past few years, but still, her articulation can be tricky. Understanding her incredibly well-crafted lyrics was a challenge on the less familiar songs. Still, playing her home court, her set was strong, and she was relaxed and chatty, with lots of fun local stories about how certain songs came about.

Williams started with what she described as a "Buddhist pop song," "What Do You Love More Than Love"--then moved right into her classic winter holiday song, "The Christians and the Pagans":

"Where does magic come from?/
I think it's in the learning/
'Cause now when Christians meet with Pagans/
Only pumpkin pies are burning"

This is typical of Dar's amazing ability to get a whole opera into just a couple of lines. There it is--the entire wrenching story of Christian witch hunts in the second half of that verse.

Like the others, Dar has songs that attack corporate greed. Her advice to residents of Hadley, one town over, fighting a Wal-Mart: "Don't start a militia--start a food co-op!" And from the song itself, "Bought and Sold,"

"The downtowns all the sadness/
Of you can't go back again/
There's a monster on the outskirts/
And it knows what your town needs/
I look up to the people who are less bought than I/
You can show them what you have to sell/
But they just ask you why"

Like Cockburn, Williams played a shortish set--just eight songs, including one about an artist, religious person, and psychotherapist all envying each other's professions ("If I Wrote You"), a song about gentrification and starting anew ("Spring Street"), "What Do You Hear in these Sounds," about therapy, and, punctuated by drum beats, another of her best known: "As Cool As I Am."

For the encore, all three stars took the stage together--Cockburn with an electric guitar, this time. Williams got to strut her stuff as a harmony vocalist, doing Linda Thompson's part on "Wall of Death" (too bad all those Thompson fans had already gone home) and providing a wonderful counterpoint to Cockburn's Dylanesque "Waiting for a Miracle." Williams' own encore choice was a pretty ballad called "I Love, I Love."

The finale, all three trading verses on Pete Seeger's "Turn, Turn, Turn," was a truly magic moment--even before Williams did the last chorus in a wailing high harmony, kind of like Seeger's own interpretation of "Wimoweh." It was a standout performance, and we can only hope that someone captured it with pro-quality recording equipment.

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