In the past few years, Canadian singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn has managed to develop the larger audience his brilliant and visionary work deserves. He's done it at the expense of the acoustic gentility that framed his earlier work. At a sold-out Bayou concert last night, Cockburn was backed by a tight and inventive five-piece band that rocked his songs with a fervor that used to be internalized. Though Cockburn could easily have succumbed to the format that he used to control, his music is as compelling as ever. The band creates a fuller lilt, a funky and sensual undercurrent that's in a curious rhythmic middle ground between Acadian music and reggae. This volatile texture made songs like "Justice" and "Rumors of Glory" very much like the best Jamaican reggae -- providing a message and a challenge, a highly personal perspective and an intuitive direction.
Among Cockburn's graces are the spiritual and romantic cast of his highly evolved lyrics, a warm voice as supple and smooth as honey and some outstanding guitar work -- mostly on electric, this time around. With a sound filled out by Hugh Marsh's violin and Kathryn Moses' compelling reeds, Cockburn often sounded like Steely Dan without that band's austere dispassion. He concentrated on recent material, but the purity of intent that has guided his entire career was as evident as ever. Cockburn doesn't preach, but he continues to convert listeners to his humanist outlook.