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Cockburn's virtuosity enraptures crowd

There are very few musicians capable of pulling off a one-man show. As wonderful as one might find Joe Folksinger's songs when listening at home, in the concert setting, if you're at all like me, you start to jones for some rhythm.

Some drums.

A little bass wouldn't hurt, either.

Folk-based music can become too self-consciously serious when it is played simply by the singer, accompanied by his acoustic guitar.

Monday evening, a large and appreciative crowd in the Tralf Music Hall rejoiced over the fact that Bruce Cockburn is not one of these narcissistic, and frankly boring, folk folks.

Performing twin sets of songs from throughout his 40-year career, with a healthy heap of new pieces balancing things out, Cockburn enthralled all by his lonesome.

He spoke a bit between songs, often self-deprecatingly, and always with a razor-sharp intelligence and an uber-dry wit. But mostly, he just played, finger-picking his acoustic guitar like a strangely beautiful hybrid of Pat Metheny and Lindsey Buckingham.

By halfway through his first set of the evening, Cockburn proved that the one-man show needn't be a snoozer, with a force that hasn't been matched around here since Bruce Springsteen brought his solo "Devils and Dust" tour to HSBC Arena, and Neil Young one-manned up at Shea's last year.

Cockburn strolled onto the stage without fanfare, waved a hello, picked up one of the many guitars surrounding him and gave us a beautiful "Last Night of the World" as an appetizer.

Based on their reactions, the assembled were deeply familiar with Cockburn's canon. His biggest hit from the '80s, "Lovers in a Dangerous Time," felt like a friendly "Hey there" when played so early in the set.

"Child of the Wind" came across as a gorgeous encapsulation of all that Cockburn does so well. A complicated finger-picking pattern played with consummate solidity wrapped itself around a typically literate and poetic lyric, while surprising chord changes kept the ear invigorated. Cockburn is a master of this sort of thing.

He proved as much again with selections from his most recent album, "Small Source of Comfort," tracked last year at the Tragically Hip's Bathhouse Studio in Canada. The sharp and witty "Call Me Rose" imagined Richard Nixon post-sex change. Seriously. "Iris of the World" revealed the Cockburnian metaphysics -- a poetic humanism, in my interpretation.

Best of all was the instrumental "Bohemian 3-Step," which suggested the level of musical virtuosity achieved by the likes of Steve Howe and Metheny during their own one-man acoustic forays.

Sublime and deeply moving.

After a brief intermission, Cockburn returned and tore into "Pacing the Cage," one of his most incisive tunes in terms of both harmonic structure and lyric. "Ancestors" brought a slightly Middle Eastern motif to bear on another haunting song. By this point, the crowd -- into it from the get-go -- was positively enraptured.

Cockburn is a rare and different bird. He essentially occupies a genre of one. Monday in the Tralf, he gave us an intimate tour of that genre.