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Slice O Life
Artist: Bruce Cockburn
Label:  True North Records 
Time: 21 Tracks / 112 mins (+ speech)
Cockburn has enjoyed a considerable following for some time. He already had a touch of the cult hero when I first saw him live at a Greenbelt Festival in the ‘eighties (a show where Bono disguised himself as a steward to see Cockburn play). That gig – like this 2-disc set – was just Cockburn plus acoustic guitar, and you sometimes had to look carefully to see that there wasn’t another guitarist hidden somewhere, helping out, such was the intricacy of his playing. 
My initial reaction to this disc was to wonder whether there should be more instrumentation, as some of these songs thrive on it. But this naked presentation highlights the material’s intrinsic character. This is one excellent set and I may already prefer it to the live trio release from 1990. 
I like the way that this pack is organized. Ten shows were recorded and this is a composite of a typical night’s performance. There are only three spoken sections – enough to give the feel of the live event, but not so much that it breaks up the music (and they all have their own track numbers so that they can be programmed out). At the end of the second disc come three pieces recorded at sound-checks: the nineteen minutes include complete versions of “Kit Carson” and the slow blues of “Mama Just Wants to Barrelhouse All Night Long,” while the rest (“Strings Warm-up”) is pleasant, largely instrumental, guitar work.
Solo acoustic guitarists have the advantage that they can re-invent their songs quite easily, and one or two here boldly show their evolution. “World of Wonders” is now much slower, with a much dreamier feel. It seemed an ideal soundtrack to the cover picture, with the much-travelled Cockburn watching different parts of the world going by. More recent songs have rarely been heard live, so their portrayal with solo acoustic guitar feels like a re-invention in itself. “Put It in your Heart,” for example, is one of the most passionately sung songs here. It rocks live in a way that a studio cut never can.
Other highlights abound, and all for different reasons. New song “The City is Hungry” is basically a blues piece, but played with jazz chords, giving it a more sophisticated feel; eco-song “If a Tree Falls” is disturbingly more relevant and urgent now than when it was written; and there is some tasty acoustic soloing in “Tibetan Side of Town” – although I do feel that Cockburn overrates this track. Maybe he overlays his memory of the Tibetan experience across this song and views it more highly than others might. The drawled verses here are a reminder that many of Cockburn’s half-spoken tracks have been shelved for this project to make room for more melodic choices.
Having missed his previous release, Speechless, which was all instrumental work from across his career, it is wonderful to have “The End of all Rivers” on the first disc. It’s his example of that guitar-track-with-echo-machine that every solo guitarist has to use live.
Other tracks include the predictable encore “Rocket Launcher;” Blind Willie Johnson’s “Soul of a Man,” from which he took the album title about the bible (or a soul) being “Nothing but a burning light;” the excellent “Lovers in a Dangerous Time,” and the image-rich “Pacing the Cage,” a song written about feeling that his way of living was not working. Those lyrics are worth quoting as a taste of his inventive writing style for anyone yet to discover him: 

Sunset is an angel weeping, holding out a bloody sword.
No matter how I squint I cannot make out what it's pointing toward.
Sometimes you feel like you live too long, days drip slowly on the page;
You catch yourself pacing the cage.

I've proven who I am so many times the magnetic strip's worn thin
And each time I was someone else and everyone was taken in.
Powers chatter in high places, stir up eddies in the dust of rage,
Set me to pacing the cage
Cockburn’s songs seem especially inspired by travel, faith, injustice and love; they provoke several parts of the brain as well as they engage the ears and feet. A set like this – both lyrics and guitar-work – shows clearly why some people believe that he is one of Canada’s very best musical exports.         
Derek Walker


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