Bruce Cockburn 4/20/18
The best live albums create the illusion of being there, witnessing an artist in a memorable performance. Bruce Cockburn has recorded three previous live recordings: „Circles in the Stream’ (1977), „Live’ (1990) and „You Pay Your Money and You Take Your Chance’ (1997), each critically acclaimed and featuring Cockburn in concert with a backing band. Now, the celebrated musician-activist delivers something new: his first-ever live solo album.
Recorded last spring over a series of dates in the northeastern United States and one in Quebec, „Slice O Life’ is a double CD that showcases a cross-section of Cockburn‟s finest songs and some of his most dazzling guitar work. The album, produced by longtime associate Colin Linden, also includes one new song, „City is Hungry,‟ three tracks recorded at sound checks on the tour and some between-song banter that shows Cockburn to be both a quick wit and an engaging storyteller.
‘Slice O Life’ features such hits as Cockburn‟s controversial „If I Had a Rocket Launcher,‟ his classic „Lovers in a Dangerous Time‟ and his breakthrough „Wondering Where the Lions Are,‟ which he rightly quips may be the only song ever to make the Billboard chart that includes the word „petroglyph.‟ Originally recorded with a full band, these and other songs like „World of Wonders‟ have been rearranged and performed on acoustic guitar—often with stunning results. In particular, the polyrhythmic solo on „Rocket Launcher,‟ full of complex, cascading notes, is especially mesmerizing.
Besides the hits, the album recasts lesser-known songs such as „Wait No More‟ and „Celestial Horses,‟ both originally featured on Cockburn‟s 2003 album „You’ve Never Seen Everything’, in a dramatic new light. The latter, full of slow, haunting reverb, now seems like an overlooked psych-folk masterpiece, while the former, played in a fast, bluesy drone on a Dobro guitar, takes on a compelling urgency. Similarly on „Tibetan Side of Town,‟ Cockburn‟s single guitar conveys a full, rich accompaniment—fluid, jazzy treble notes and Big Bill Broonzy-style droning bass notes—for his vivid tale of sensory nights in Katmandu.
Cockburn has often cited the influence of the blues on his music, especially the work of country-blues pioneers like Mississippi John Hurt. The blues tinge shines through in several other performances on „Slice O Life’, including Cockburn‟s gut-wrenching rendition of Blind Willie Johnson‟s „Soul of a Man‟ and „City is Hungry,‟ an hypnotic urban blues number in which Cockburn warns “hear that rumbling underground/better think twice before you go downtown.”
Meanwhile, the sound checks and introductions to songs reveal another side of the award-winning artist. One sound check involves Cockburn jamming wildly on his 12-string guitar before segueing into „The Trains Don‟t Go There Anymore,‟ a rare track he co-wrote in the 1960s with Ottawa poet Bill Hawkins. Cockburn‟s humor comes across in anecdotes about panhandlers who claim to know his music and a mercenary who once offered him a summer job as a gun-runner while he was a student at Boston‟s prestigious Berklee School of Music.
Fortunately for us, Cockburn turned down the job and stuck with music. Over 35 years, the Ottawa-born musician has recorded almost as many albums while earning respect for his charitable and activist work. “My job is to try and trap the spirit of things in the scratches of pen on paper, in the pulling of notes out of metal,” Cockburn said when he was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 2001. He was also made an Officer of the Order of Canada and has been the recipient of honorary degrees in Letters and Music from several North American universities, including Berklee and Toronto‟s York University. His many other awards have included the Tenco Award for Lifetime Achievement in Italy and 20 gold and platinum awards in Canada.
As a songwriter, Cockburn is revered by fans and musicians alike. His songs have been covered by such diverse artists as Elbow, Jimmy Buffett, Judy Collins, the Skydiggers, Anne Murray, Third World, Chet Atkins, k.d. lang, Barenaked Ladies, Maria Muldaur and the Grateful Dead‟s Jerry Garcia. As a guitarist, he is considered among the world‟s best. „The New York Times’ called Cockburn a “virtuoso on guitar,” while „Acoustic Guitar’ magazine placed him in the esteemed company of Andrés Segovia, Bill Frisell and Django Reinhardt. With „Slice O Life’, all of Cockburn‟s formidable gifts are on full display.