For his first 21 albums starting in 1970, Canadian-born singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn had plenty to say in the way of politically charged lyrics on subjects ranging from indigenous peoples to environmental causes, imperialism and pacifism. In 2005 he turned an abrupt about-face and issued Speechless, an all-instrumental album.
Cockburn resumed his social commentary lyrical sojourn for another 14 years until this year, when he released his 34th studio effort and his second all-instrumental session, Crowing Ignites.
Cockburn’s acoustic guitar fingerpicking chops put him on the map eons ago, but the depth and rigor of his playing on the new album is remarkable. With East Indian raga-like drones and extended modal improvisations, the session brims with emotive expressionism and spirituality.
“My musical tastes have always been quite eclectic,” Cockburn says. “Over the years I’ve amassed a large collection of equally eclectic instruments from around the world. The luxury of doing a 100-percent instrumental album is that it allowed me to bring all of that into the studio.”
Cockburn says he didn’t set out to make a spiritual album, but he isn’t at all surprised that that comes through.
“Without lyrics, it’s difficult to convey a specific idea,” Cockburn says. “Instrumental music carries feelings.”
In addition to his serious political side, Cockburn has a sense of humor, especially when discussing his creative process as it applies to songwriting. “It’s not mental for me,” he says. “I don’t think ‘I’m going to write a song now.’ It’s more like a biological urge, like going to the bathroom, or needing to eat. You wait and wait and then it happens. The song just comes out.”
For the current leg of the tour, Cockburn appears as a duo with his nephew John Aaron Cockburn, an accordionist and fellow finger-style guitarist. While he is touring in support of the new album, Cockburn cautions fans not to expect a solely instrumental show.
“It will be a mix of things, old and new,” he says, “Some singing, some playing. Just like my whole career.”
As he looks back on that nearly 50-year career, Cockburn comes full circle. “So much of what is going on now has happened before,” he says. “What changed the movement all the way back at Altamont was that the suppressed rage and violence surfaced, just like now. Greed and selfishness have long been the bane of human existence, but it doesn’t have to be that way.”
BRUCE COCKBURN 8pm Saturday, Nov. 23. Golden State Theatre, 417 Alvarado St., Monterey. $29-$55. 649-1070, goldenstatetheatre.com