Bruce Cockburn has been making music for the best part of 40 years now, which is time enough for any self-respecting songwriter and musician to have got all the experimental urges out of their system and realised exactly what it is they are best at and what their devoted fanbase wants to hear.
All of which is a rather long-winded way of saying that the two-disc live solo collection Slice O Life may just be an essential purchase for anyone with only a cursory interest in the Canadian singer-songwriter’s music (a national treasure in his native country, Cockburn has at best only had limited success outside its shores).
Released on his North American label of the last few years, Rounder Records, Slice O Life is drawn from ten shows on his 2008 summer tour. It’s a measure of the devotion in which his fans hold Cockburn that this album opens with nearly a minute of applause.
Cockburn is a consummate professional on stage and knows just which buttons to press. Hence, he opens with two of his most melodic and engaging songs; World Of Wonders and Lovers In A Dangerous Time. Both tracks are suited to the stripped down solo format, allowing Cockburn’s masterful guitar playing to shine and giving his powerful baritone free range to express his wordy but insightful insights into the human condition.
Cockburn is another of those singers whose vocals have got better with age (the parallels with Warren Zevon are interesting), developing extra nuances with the passing of years. And it is a delight to hear his songs stripped of the dated production flourishes that often made his studio albums difficult to love.
The singer’s self-deprecating stage banter with his fans is a joy to hear and should be required listening for all those young acts who shun their audiences. Three ‘stories’ even make the track listing in their own right, the best of which is Bearded Folksinger.
Slice O Life’s generous running time allows the inclusion of some of Cockburn’s instrumental interludes, but to be honest a track such as the shimmering The End Of All Rivers must have been a strong contender to make it onto a single disc.
Long-time fans of Cockburn will be delighted with the versions of his most famous songs on show here, notably the aforementioned World Of Wonders and Lovers In A Dangerous Time, but also the ‘hits’ Wondering Where The Lions Are and If I Had A Rocket Launcher. The latter is dated, true, but Cockburn invests the song with the same level of passion as he did in 1984.
Slice O Life ends with three soundcheck performances that are a reminder of what a great guitar player Cockburn is (often overlooked by lazy critics who prefer to tag the man as a Christian songwriter). Pleasingly, the album ends with a bluesy version of one of his earliest songs, Mama Just Wants To Barrelhouse All Night Long.
This is a fine career overview that will be an essential purchase for Cockburn fans and is also worth the investment for those wishing to investigate neglected singer-songwriters.