This 2009 live collection is one of my more recent acquisitions, and seemed a pertinent title to be reviewed on this blog. Cockburn’s style is (mostly) jazz-laced folk, and he has won numerous awards. Acoustic Guitar magazine has rated him alongside Django Reinhardt and Bill Frisell. He is the artist that I most regret never having seen/heard perform live. He tours most often in his native Canada and in the US, although he did play the Empire in Belfast in January 2007, and the Cambridge (UK) folk festival in July of the same year. Any time he has been in the country, I’ve been out of it (the country, not my head). So, until he next comes by Northern Ireland, this’ll have to do – and do very nicely it will too. Although he has already released a total of three live albums before, this is his first without a backing band, allowing nothing to distract from the excellence of his guitarmanship. When he was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 2001, Cockburn said “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.” He can do both rather well.
Personally, in terms of studio albums, I think he has never surpassed (and likely will never surpass) 1979’s sublime Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws. Live albums bring their advantages and disadvantages – well recorded and engineered ones, played on a decent system, help recreate the sense of being there – even in stereo, without “surround” sound; the down side is often having to put up with hearing the same chat with the audience over and over again. If you’re particularly organised, I guess you can pre-programme your playlist/CD player to exclude those bits (if they’ve got individual track markers). Me, I rarely have the energy to do that – it kinda takes the relaxation out of listening to a performance to have to edit it beforehand.
I still prefer listening to physical media such as CD and vinyl over downloads. Whilst I appreciate the convenience of the latter, and use streaming to inform my purchases, I think it fosters a tendency to purchase only the tracks which are the first to appeal, discriminating against the “slow burners.” Also, selective track downloading misses entirely the artist’s choice of juxtaposition of songs/sequence, and undermines the whole artistic concept of an “album.” Once I’ve decided to purchase an artist’s work, I want to hear it at its best. Although the available number of hi-res downloads is increasing, from niche sites, much mainstream music is only downloadable in data-stripped MP3 form, so I think I’ll persist with CDs and vinyl for some time yet.
Slice o Life doesn’t disappoint with regard to sonics (and the talkie bits have track markers – even welcoming applause has Track 1 all to itself). There is also a good selection of songs across the album’s two CDs. Cockburn’s vocal style likely divides opinion. He does have a tendency to lapse into a half-spoken delivery at times; and when he is singing, his pitching might sometimes be best described as “approximate.” Nonetheless the whole is entertaining, captivating, and at times awe-inspiring.
Kit Carson is a great blues-steeped number, which is Cockburn’s attempt at correcting over-romantic notions of at least one episode in US history and colonial behaviour. Cockburn told BBC Radio 1’s Johnny Walker: “Kit Carson was of course a famous Indian fighter in the last century, which was enough to make him a Hollywood hero. But when you actually look at what he did, he was a genocidal maniac, and a lot of terrible things were done by him in the name of the expansion of the US into the west.”
Cockburn reveals his blues influences further with his brilliant cover of Blind Willie Johnson’s Soul of a Man, which presumably provided the title of another of Bruce’s albums, Nothing But A Burning Light.
Whether or not you like audiences singing along on live recordings, I challenge you to stop your feet tapping along to Wondering Where The Lions Are. “Some kinda ecstasy got a hold on me…” – oh yeah. The version of Mama Just Wants To Barrelhouse on this album is just superb.
Pacing the Cage (1995) has Cockburn envisioning the spiritual in the beauty and tragedy of the world around him (much as he did on DITDJ) –
“Sunset is an angel weeping, holding out a bloody sword
No matter how I squint I cannot make out what it's pointing toward”
Put It In Your Heart suggests the potential for something humble to be transformed into something valuable: “Heaven’s perfect alchemy put me with you and you with me… put that in your heart” – a line that I’d love to try on my wife but I can hear the laughter already…
Lovers In A Dangerous Time, from the 1984 album Stealing Fire, has been covered by the Barenaked Ladies. The lyrics are sensual: “Spirits open to the thrust of grace,” highlighting the intertwined nature of the spiritual with the physical, and bringing together sex and faith more than 20 years before Rob Bell’s Sex God. Admittedly it was done 3000 or so years before Cockburn in the Ketuvim’s Song of Songs (and around the same time as Cockburn by a vastly less talented individual in a song for a friend’s wedding…….)
In Tie Me At The Crossroads, Cockburn invites folk to hang him in full view of people passing by (when he’s dead). It reminds me of Robert Johnson, whom popular myth has doing a deal with the devil at the crossroads; but it also is somewhat reminiscent to me of another, who was hung in full view whilst people passed by. However, it’s not a morbid song, and peppered with Cockburn’s self-effacing humour:
“It's more blessed to give than it is to receive
Except when it comes to free advice I believe”
As Cockburn himself is reported to have commented on the song (cockburnproject.net): “It's great for other people to take you seriously, but you'd better not be guilty of doing it to yourself." Mmm… must take note.
Although I think DITDJ remains his best album, Cockburn’s contribution is perhaps best summed up by a couplet from Lovers:
“Nothing worth having comes without some kind of fight
got to kick at the darkness til it bleeds daylight.”
Keep on kickin’ Bruce.