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Bruce Cockburn: A ‘Slice O’ Live’ in Aspen

John Colson
Aspen Times Weekly
Riddle Films Inc.Bruce Cockburn performs April 7 at the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen.
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ASPEN ” Canadian musician Bruce Cockburn returns to the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen on April 7, and he says he’ll feel right at home, even though the last time he was here was in 2004, at least as far as he can recall.

Since he will be continuing the habit of solo, or nearly solo touring that began back in the 1990s, the show will feel familiar to his more dedicated fans. His set list will be made up largely of songs from his newly released CD “Slice O’ Life,” a two-disc collection of live performances drawn from 10 stops on a tour in May 2008.

“Aspen is a great place to play,” said the musician by telephone, as he drove between San Francisco and Tuscon, Ariz.

He said he has had “great skiing experiences” in his past Aspen gigs, and he has enjoyed the interplay with the audiences here. He seemed to wince when told that the snow is pretty good right now ” and likely will still be good when he gets here next week ” because he won’t have time to ski this go-round due to a cramped touring schedule.

All 25 songs on Cockburn’s new compilation are drawn from his own broad repertoire ” tunes he minted himself and has perfected over the years. And with this collection, Cockburn has fashioned a powerful look back at his musical legacy, with his inimitable spicy wit and barbed political sensibilities woven into complex and often haunting melodies.

The only new song on the CD is a tune called “The City is Hungry,” drawn from his having spent considerable stretches of time in Brooklyn, N.Y., in recent years. It is a bluesy, soulful ballad, with Cockburn’s plaintive voice stretched over simple, blues-tinted runs on his guitar.

The song list is sprinkled with his few U.S. hits, including rollicking renderings of “Wondering Where The Lions Are,” “If A Tree Falls,” “If I Had A Rocket Launcher” and a couple of others, as well as rearrangements of fan favorites such as “How I Spent My Fall Vacation,” “Tibetan Side of Town” (a hearkening to his travels to the Far East) and “Put It In Your Heart.”

Aside from the music, Cockburn treats the listener to his patter between songs, a mini-monologues that showcase his quiet humor and self-deprecating nature.

For example, leading into “Tramps On The Street,” he talks about his hometown of Kingston, Ontario, and the fact that “the bums there all know who I am” and recognize him on the street, interrupting their panhandling routine to chat with him.

“I don’t know what it means, that those are the people that are my demographic, in the town I live in, but there you are,” he said, getting a laugh from the audience.

In the CD liner notes, which were written by Cockburn, he tells consumers, “We’ve made an effort to put them together as one show, in the hope of giving you the feeling of being present in the flesh. For the same reason, we chose not to apply too much polish. What you hear is what it was.” He explained by telephone that the audience sounds and performances were mixed and matched to give as seamless an approximation of one, solid show as possible.

Cockburn said he plans to concentrate on the new CD in his Aspen performance, both because he enjoys playing the songs and because he is, technically speaking, on a promotional tour and that is what is expected.

Although, he conceded, “because of the nature of the album, it [the tour] is a little shorter and there’s less of it. It’s a tour-ette.”

Asked if that means the show will be spiced up with sudden outbursts of obscene language and derogatory remarks about, say, the social elitism many equate with Aspen [as in Tourette’s syndrome], Cockburn chuckled and replied, “No. I try to keep that under control.”

Seriously, though, he said the tour is designed as a low-key affair ” as is the CD.

Aside from the songs on the CD, Cockburn said he may venture into some of the tunes he has written lately as he prepares to go into the studio to cut a new CD.

One such new song, grew out of an attempt during the George W. Bush years in the White House to “rehabilitate the image of [former President] Richard Nixon. It struck me, what would it mean to really rehabilitate Richard Nixon.”

So he wrote a song, in the first person, about Nixon reincarnated as a black, single mother trying to make it in a white world.

“It’s kind of a personal song,” he said, “and it’s not, really, that dark.” He said he may play it in the Aspen show.

Cockburn is not sure what the new album/CD will be, although he has a number of songs written already and “a few people that I want to be involved with” in the studio.

Somewhat submerged these days is the incendiary Canadian whose politically charged, electrified, group-backed style in the 1980s scored several hits on the U.S. charts. This was a departure for a singer-songwriter who has typically been ignored by the music industry in this country, despite the apparent recognition of his abilities that lead him to be picked to open for a Jimi Hendrix show in Montreal in 1968.

What we have now is Cockburn, now 63, polishing his peerless guitar style on tours where he is either alone or with a backup musician or two.

He calls his newest tunes “folky” and isn’t quite sure yet if his upcoming studio sessions will be just him, or will feature one of a couple of new musicians he has allied with recently.

“It’s quite folky, which surprised me,” he noted. “I suspected I’d be doing something much more noisy. I have this deep urge to make anarchic, destructive noise. But, it didn’t work out that way.”

Although he conceded that some of his fans accuse him of mellowing over time, Cockburn said, “I don’t particularly feel mellow. I feel quite stressed a lot of the time.”

But the new CD sure doesn’t reflect that stress, giving listeners a front-row seat at what appears to have been a long and happy concert event.

jcolson@aspentimes.com


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