When it comes to raising awareness about an international ban on landmines, it's a goofy old world out there.
Just ask John Prine. Or any one of Emmylou Harris, Bruce Cockburn, Steve Earle, Nanci Griffith and Mary Chapin Carpenter.
Only a cause supporting a ban on landmines would bring these six singer-songwriters extraordinaire together on one stage for last night's Concert for a Landmine Free World at the National Arts Centre.
True, the Ottawa stop on this mini-tour was legitimate -- yesterday marked the third anniversary of the signing of the Ottawa Treaty -- a global ban on antipersonnel landmines.
Nonetheless, to witness these six sample their musical treasure chest before a sold-out crowd last night was, to say the least, priceless.
Having travelled to Mozambique and Cambodia for a first-hand look at victims of landmines, the Ottawa-born Cockburn was in his socially-conscious element when he performed The Mines of Mozambique and, oddly enough, Lovers In a Dangerous Time, both delivered with much stronger conviction than his Centrepointe Theatre concert earlier this year.
It would be remiss not to mention Cockburn's gifted playing not only on his own songs, but to the other five musicians as well when a lead guitar solo was necessary.
Harris and her distinctive silvery voice could sing a commercial jingle and cause goosepimples. Fortunately, she regaled in material from her latest album Red Dirt Girl, filled in haunting harmonies and found time to flog Chromas -- scarves made by Cambodian landmine survivors -- and make a few pointed stabs at Pat Buchanan.
Speaking of stabs, kudos to Steve Earle for his "Yeah, right" retort to the lone drunkard who requested Copperhead Road. Earle cut much deeper with perhaps his best singing and playing in years, particularly on The Truth, complete with sparse banjo plucking.
Chapin Carpenter's sultry voice and genre-blurred songwriting won over the hearts more than Griffith's cutting nasal and pop fare, though her take on From A Distance far outshone Bette Midler's and Cliff Richard's versions.
But the audience fave was Prine. And rightly so. For all the seriousness of the 21/2 hour show, Prine's stories about Sam Stone and Goofy Old World are such irresistible singalongs the crowd had no trouble piping in at the appropriate moments.
Thirty-six strings, no waiting.
It's not many who can claim to have had Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Bruce Cockburn, Mary Chapin Carpenter, John Prine and Nanci Griffith over to their place for a Sunday evening jam session. That was the feeling at the National Arts Centre as the six artists came together to celebrate the third anniversary of the Ottawa Landmines Treaty banning the use of landmines.
Sitting in a loose semicircle on the stage of Southam Hall, the six took turns choosing tunes in what was called a "song-circle," with the others providing occasional vocal and, primarily through Cockburn's talented picking, instrumental accompaniment.
Harris opened the night with Red Dirt Girl, from her latest album. As was the case with all the musicians last night, the sound was exceptional, with every guitar string clear, resonant and powerful.
After Harris, Cockburn played Lovers in a Dangerous Time, while Chapin Carpenter followed with A Place in the World.
Earle, greeted by rousing rebel yells and hoots, offered the hardest-edged piece of the opening round with Tanytown, his Dylanesque harmonica in tow. Griffith, backed by John Hooker on keyboards, played Travellin' Through This Part of You, an ode to her ex-husband who served in Vietnam.
Then, to thunderous applause, Prine began to play the simple opening chords to It's A Big Old Goofy World, a humorous song that set the room of boomers tapping and singing along.
"The audience last night was extraordinarily receptive," said Chapin Carpenter of the five-day tour's opening night in Stamford, Connecticut on Saturday night. "It makes you feel like you can really effect change and get people to think about what this is all about."
Just before the intermission, retired foreign affairs minister Lloyd Axworthy, largely credited with the landmine treaty's birth and success, was given the Senator Patrick J. Leahy Humanitarian Award, named after the Democrat senator from Vermont.
The award recognizes Axworthy for his leadership in "the global effort to outlaw the use of child soldiers, to bring war criminals to justice, and to end the human tragedy of landmines."
The award included a painting by Philip Craig, accompanied by a $50,000 U.S. cheque.
"This award gives me a great sense of pride," said Axworthy. "Not for me, but for all Canadians, because it really is a Canadian humanitarian award.
"This is all about saving innocent people," he added, "and protecting their right to be in this big old goofy world."
Axworthy earlier indicated that his retirement from federal politics won't keep him away. "Around the world, I think we're now at 110 countries that have actually ratified (the treaty) and 138 or 139 that have signed, but there are still some hard cases out there.
"Now that I'm a private citizen with a little more freedom, now that I don't have to show up in the House of Commons for all-night votes in February, I'll have a little time to go to some of these places and see what we can do to bring more of them on board."
Harris, who has been the driving force behind assembling last night's entourage, earlier deflected credit thrown her way, instead putting it squarely in the laps of Axworthy, Leahy and, particularly, Robert Muller, president and founder of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, who has been the primary organizer of the Campaign for a Landmine- Free World.
"I used to think that landmines were just a plot device used in World War II movies," she said. "After becoming aware that something needed to be changed, I hooked up with Bobby and his organization, which allows me to facilitate that change.
"Everyone thinks that the artists are doing all this work," she added, "but really, we just show up for a few days every year and do what we love to do. But it's these people who are doing the work, 24 hours a day, seven days a week."
The five artists who attended the pre-concert press conference (Prine was absent) all pointed to firsthand experience in places like Vietnam, Cambodia and Bosnia as the impetus behind their concern and involvement in the landmine cause.
"I was in Phnom Pehn," said Earle, "and counted how many amputees I saw in a city block. On average, over an afternoon, I saw four on every block, everywhere I went."
Earle added that the role of last night's concert was twofold: part celebration and part lobbying.
"Canada took the lead and got the treaty signed here in Ottawa," he said. "That's what we're here to celebrate. In the States, I'm embarrassed to say, we haven't signed that treaty yet.
"But the VVFA is still working on that, and this concert is a way to make people aware of that, because there's still a lot of work to do."
Carpenter echoed those sentiments. "I think that any time you have a forum to express your concern for issues that are important to you," she said, "it's a privilege to be able to say what you feel and to be able to educate on behalf of something."
For Cockburn, the event was "a celebration. A celebration of our and the audience's mutual support for something that needs our support," he said.
"I think that everything has a purpose. And it feels to me that my purpose with any of the issues that I've been involved with has been to contribute what I can to making the world a better place.
"It's that simple."
Chapin Carpenter said she enjoys the loose format the five shows have adopted.
"It's great," she said. "No set list. You kind of just go and see what you feel like playing. That's the thing that's very cool about it, it's very organic.
"For myself, I just start out with something I feel like playing and, when it comes my turn again to play, I'm just reminded of things to play, based on what somebody else might have just played," she said.
"And if you hear a harmony on someone else's song, or you want to play along, you just jump in. The way I think of it is that I'm spraying other people's songs."