Cockburn displays guitar mastery, diverse songwriting in Aspen |

Cockburn displays guitar mastery, diverse songwriting in Aspen

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Lynn Goldsmith/lynngoldsmith.comBruce Cockburn performed Tuesday night at Aspen's Wheeler Opera House.

ASPEN ” Exiting the stage after his first set Tuesday night at Aspen’s Wheeler Opera House, Bruce Cockburn walked into one of the five guitars arrayed in a semi-circle behind him. The guitar fell to the ground with an amplified crash, putting the usually placid Canadian in a momentary foul mood.

The incident proved that Cockburn does not have complete and total mastery of his instruments. But put a guitar safely in his hands, and he does things that few other musicians can even think of. That the 63-year-old has fabulous technique is a given, but beyond that is an even more singular imagination regarding the instrument.

Performing solo at the Wheeler ” and promoting “Slice O Life,” the live solo album he released last week ” Cockburn didn’t have a chance to play much lead guitar, per se. Instead, he focused on using chords in inventive, dynamic ways ” often while keeping a rhythm by hitting the bass string with his thumb, and occasionally adding electronically looped guitar figures.

But on “The City Is Hungry” Cockburn took on the role of a lead guitarist, part Richard Thompson, part Jimi Hendrix. The solo was a thing of fierce energy ” for a while beautiful and jazzy and melodic, and then for a brief moment, breaking down into anarchy, as he played a flurry of notes that had no relationship to one another. And then in the next instant, beauty and order were back. “The City Is Hungry” ” which Cockburn mentioned was inspired by Brooklyn, a place he has been spending much time lately ” is a new song, and the instrumental break made certain that it earned plenty of attention.

Cockburn is not only an instrumentalist of the first order, but also a distinctive and diverse songwriter with an ability to deliver his ideas effectively. His voice isn’t on a par with his playing, but he makes up for any shortcomings with utter conviction and sincerity. The Wheeler show began on an upbeat note: The folky and optimistic “World of Wonders” opened the show, followed by the sublime “Last Night of the World,” which anticipates not a dark apocalypse, but Champagne with a special person. Later on came the more socio-political material: songs that decried the state of the environment, war and corruption, and a new tune that mocked the Bush administration’s brief, strange effort to rehabilitate the image of Richard Nixon.

And Cockburn had more to offer. His encore opened with “Wondering Where the Lions Are,” a song catchy, simple and popular enough to turn into a group singalong. He followed with “Mama Just Wants to Barrelhouse All Night Long,” which might have been a straight-up blues if only Cockburn weren’t so good at adding sophistication to the simplest structure.

And he left the stage collision-free, leaving the guitar-related errors for the night at one.

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