14 March 2009 - by Wilfred Langmaid - In a career honed and burnished over the past 40 years, Canada's own Bruce Cockburn has uniquely crafted mastery of four special musical tools in a world where most would be happy with skills in just one.
He writes exquisite lyrics with a poet's grace, a chronicler's precision, and a prophet's clarity.
He delivers these lyrics with a unique and passionate voice.
He pens melodies that range from jazzy progressions and other intricate designs to simply beautiful folk, pop and blues tunes.
He plays various guitars and stringed instruments with incredible skill and aplomb.
Those gifts triumphantly come together on a double live solo CD set for release March 31.
Slice O Life is the fourth live Cockburn album over the years, but it is the first in a solo setting. Part of this is the wonderful collision between commercial reality and artistic opportunity.
Cockburn's biggest Billboard hit came 30 years ago, and his days as a touring act with a full band peaked in the 1980s. In recent years, he has steadily performed his ever-growing canon of songs with one or two backing musicians or solo.
This album comprises 19 songs from solo shows in May 2008 concerts in the northeastern U.S. and Quebec.
Cockburn's shows have had certain patterns in recent years, and this collection reflects these.
They include the regular placement of his 1984 song Lovers In A Dangerous Time in the two slot and the later inclusion of his only real U.S. hit Wondering Where The Lions Are complete with audience singalong.
These songs, and other inclusions like 1988's If A Tree Falls, 1999's Last Night Of The World, and 2003's Put It In Your Heart show Cockburn's knack for a mid-tempo pop groove that has both a distinctive flair and peerless guitar licks to carry the distinctive and well-constructed rhythms and melodies.
They are also, to a one, songs that have a clear message from a man whose role as a world troubadour and shaman has been a hallmark of his work from the mid 70s onward.
Every Cockburn fan will have an "aha" moment or two on Slice O Life, and they may well come from the less widely-known gems.
He shows his one-man-band abilities as a guitarist, fusing rich and jazzy treble licks and bedrock bass notes conjuring up images of great musical forebears like Big Bill Broonzy in the 1988 travelogue Tibetan Side Of Town, the cover of Blind Willie Johnson's Soul Of A Man whose lyric line gave the album title to 1991's Nothing But A Burning Light, the 2003 reflection Wait No More, the instrumental The End Of All Rivers which was part of the 2005 disc Speechless, and the brand new The City Is Hungry.
At such moments, people unfamiliar with just how much Cockburn can do may check the liner notes to see who stepped in one second guitar for these tracks. They can look and look, but it is all one person, as Cockburn moves through the set using guitars made by fellow Canuck Lynda Manzer. He shows his ability to offer travelogues of his many journeys, beginning this 2 CD set with a show opener of the title track from the 1986 album World Of Wonders.
The most striking song of this sort on this set is one of the earlier parts of that canon, the 1980 song How I Spent My Fall Vacation. He shows an equal gift of reach into his own heart and soul and taps into ours.
While all of his songs do this, his personal chronicles like 1996's Pacing The Cage and the less frequently played Child Of the Wind from 1991 are beautiful in their relative melodic simplicity.
In the process, they allow the bare message to keep centre stage. There is also plenty of evidence of the wry and twisted humour that people experience when they see Cockburn live, be it in the three included pre-song raves or the concert closing 1994 track Tie Me At The Crossroads.
Fleshed out with 18 minutes of recording from a soundcheck, this is an album which will thrill people who have followed Cockburn's career for these many years.
As he approaches his 64th birthday, he also offers a nice one-package synopsis of where he has been, where he is, and where he is going for more casual fans.
Fredericton-based freelance writer Wilfred Langmaid has reviewed albums in The Daily Gleaner since 1981, and is a past judge for both the Junos and the East Coast Music Awards. His column appears each Saturday.