BRUCE COCKBURN – Bone On Bone (True North TND 678)

Bone On BoneHaving released twenty-four studio albums, starting with his self-titled 1970 debut, at almost yearly intervals, the acclaimed Canadian singers-songwriter found himself hitting a creative block following 2011’s Small Source of Comfort, partly from the distraction of becoming a father again and partly because he’d poured all his energy into penning his memoir, Rumours of Glory.

But then he was approached to contribute a song to a documentary about seminal Canadian poet Al Purdy, and the spark returned. The result of that commission can be heard on the rhythmically chugging ‘3 Al Purdys’, which, featuring trumpet maestro Ron Miles on cornet and Julie Wolf on accordion, is a song written and sung in the gravelly voice of a homeless man who recites Purdy’s poems in the street in return for money and features spoken extracts from Purdy’s works, but extends beyond that as a typical Cockburn social commentary.

The album opens with the smoulderingly taut ‘States I’m In’, which he describes as literally a ‘dark night of the soul’ song about illusion and self-delusion and the tricks you play on yourself as it moves from sunset to dawn with imagery such as that of a drunk shinnying up a greased pole and “the mayor and his uniformed monkeys.”

‘Stab At Matter’ features his signature bluesy fingerpicked style, producer Colin Linden providing slide with gospel call and response vocals from Ruby Amanfu and The San Francisco Lighthouse Chorus, the latter a group of singers from Cockburn’s church who also feature on the subsequent folksier ‘Forty Years In The Wilderness’, this time joined by Mary Gauthier on a song about faith and moving forward.

It’s back to the blues with ‘Café Society’, a drivealong almost rockabilly boogie with treated vocals about the folk who collect at his local coffee shop to chew over the state of the world, slowing the blues groove down for the circling riff of ‘Looking and Waiting’, one of his faith and frustration religious-themed numbers (“scanning the skies for beacon from you”) that sees him on 12 string and mbira, joined by nephew John on accordion and sansula, Linden on slide and the Lighthouse Chorus, this time with Brandon Robert Young.

Cockburn’s name is too often absent when lists of guitar greats are bandied about, but, featuring just his picking and bones the intricate instrumental ‘Bone On Bone’ shows just why it should be mentioned alongside the likes of Clapton, Thompson, Gregson et al.

Its back to vocals for ‘Mon Chemin’ (aka ‘The Road’), accompanying himself on charango and dulcimer and singing (and swearing) in French for a meditation on a physical and existential life on the road that sees Miles providing some striking cornet cork. Bringing back nephew, Linden, Young and the Chorus, ‘False River’ started out as another commission, this time from Victoria poet laureate Yvonne Bloomer who wanted him to pen a spoken word piece about the Kinder Morgan Mountain Pipeline, the controversial pipeline which, built in 1953, carries crude oil from Alberta to the west coast of British Columbia and is the reported source of considerable environmental damage. The final form, however, is a complex rhythmically itchy fingerpicked brooding number with lines about tanker carcasses the planet’s pierced bones and even “a diamond-crusted pendant in the shape of Bart Simpson” in what emerges as a potent environmental warning that “on our own heads be our doom.”

As the title suggests, ‘Jesus Train’ is very much in Cockburn’s gospel mode, a relentless wheels turning chugger about heading for the city of God and marking another spirited turn for Amanfu and the Chorus. Continuing with the spiritual and mysticism themes given a sense of greater urgency in the Trump era, they also line up for ‘Twelve Gates To The City’, a 12 string fingerpicked gospel blues that sees Miles adding New Orleansy jazzed brass flourishes as drummer Gary Craig pins down the persistent rhythmic drive that sees the album out in fine style. The creative drought has given way to a virtual monsoon, so perhaps, following his long overdue induction into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, we can look forward to a follow up in the not too distant future.

Mike Davies

‘States I’m In’:

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Artist’s website: www.brucecockburn.com

Bruce Cockburn announces thirty-third album: Bone On Bone

Bruce Cockburn

Few recording artists are as creative and prolific as Bruce Cockburn. Since his self-titled debut in 1970, the Canadian singer-songwriter has issued a steady stream of acclaimed albums every couple of years. But that output suddenly ran dry in 2011 following the release of Small Source Of Comfort. There were good reasons for the drought. For one thing, Cockburn became a father again with the birth of his daughter Iona. Then there was the publication of his 2014 memoir Rumours Of Glory.

“I didn’t write any songs until after the book was published because all my creative energy had gone into three years of writing it”, Cockburn explains, from his home in San Francisco. “There was simply nothing left to write songs with. As soon as the book was put to bed, I started asking myself whether I was ever going to be a songwriter again.”

Such doubt was new to the man who’s rarely been at a loss for words as he’s distilled political views, spiritual revelations and personal experiences into some of popular music’s most compelling songs. What spurred Cockburn back into songwriting was an invitation to contribute a song to a documentary film about the late, seminal Canadian poet Al Purdy and he was off to the races.

Bone On Bone, Cockburn’s 33rd album, arrives with eleven new songs, including ‘3 Al Purdys’, a brilliant, six-minute epic that pays tribute to Purdy’s poetry. Cockburn explains its genesis: “I went out and got Purdy’s collected works, which is an incredible book. Then I had this vision of a homeless guy who is obsessed with Purdy’s poetry, and he’s ranting it on the street. The song is written in the voice of that character. The chorus goes, “I’ll give you three Al Purdys for a twenty dollar bill.” Here’s this grey-haired dude, coat tails flapping in the wind, being mistaken for the sort of addled ranters you run into on the street – except he’s not really ranting, he’s reciting Al Purdy. The spoken word parts of the track are excerpts from Purdy’s poems. After that, once the ice was broken, the songs just started coming.”

Cockburn’s rugged fingerpicking style on the Dobro perfectly matches Purdy’s plainspoken words and the grizzled voice of his street character. A similar guitar style can be heard on two of the next songs Cockburn wrote, the gospel-like ‘Jesus Train’, and ‘Café Society’, a bluesy number about people who gather at his local coffee shop to sip their java and talk about the state of the world.

There’s a prevalent urgency and anxious tone to much of the album, which Cockburn attributes to living in America during the Trump era. But, more than anything, Bone On Bone amounts to the deepest expression of Cockburn’s spiritual concerns to date. The 12-time Juno winner and Canadian Music Hall of Fame inductee turned away from traditional Christianity in the mid-1970s toward a quest for the more all-inclusive mysticism he documents in his memoir. And it’s that kind of spirituality that figures prominently in ‘Jesus Train’ and ‘Twelve Gates To The City’. In ‘Looking And Waiting’, Cockburn sings of “scanning the skies for a beacon” from the divine.

“It’s a song of faith and frustration”, says Cockburn of the latter. “…Tired of looking in from the outside. My MO has always been to be aware of the divine…that dimension…always dealing with being stuck in a kind of observer’s position with respect to all that. I know it’s there. I don’t really see as faith so much as knowledge.

Others may have different ideas about those things, but for me, I don’t have to struggle to believe in God, or the notion that God cares what happens to me. But I do have to struggle with being in a conscious, intentional relationship. That underlies a lot of these songs.”

‘Forty Years In The Wilderness’ ranks alongside ‘Pacing The Cage’ or ‘All The Diamonds’ as one of Cockburn’s most starkly beautiful folk songs. “There have been so many times in my life when an invitation has come from somewhere…the cosmos…the divine…to step out of the familiar into something new. I’ve found it’s best to listen for, and follow these promptings. The song is really about that. You can stay with what you know or you can pack your bag and go where you’re called, even if it seems weird…even if you can’t see why or where you’ll end up.”

‘Forty Years In The Wilderness’ is one of several songs that feature a number of singers from the church Cockburn frequents, for the sake of convenience referred to in the album credits as the San Francisco Lighthouse “Chorus”. “The music was one of the enticements that drew me to SF Lighthouse. As I found myself becoming one of the regulars there, and got to know the people, I felt that I really wanted all these great singers, who were now becoming friends, to be on the album. They were kind enough to say yes!” Among other songs, they contribute call-and-response vocals to the stirring ‘Stab At Matter’. Other guests on the album include singer-songwriters Ruby Amanfu, Mary Gauthier, and Brandon Robert Young, along with bassist Roberto Occhipinti, and Julie Wolf, who plays accordion on ‘3 Al Purdys’ and sings with the folks from Lighthouse, together with LA songwriter Tamara Silvera.

Produced by Colin Linden, Cockburn’s longtime collaborator, the album is built around the musicianship of Cockburn on guitar and the core accompaniment of bassist John Dymond and drummer Gary Craig. Also very much part of the sound is the accordion playing of Cockburn’s nephew John Aaron Cockburn and the solos of noted fluegelhorn player Ron Miles (check out his stunning work on the cascading ‘Mon Chemin’, for example).

Two other songs should be noted. The environmental warning ‘False River’ came about at the invitation of Yvonne Bloomer, the poet laureate of Victoria, British Columbia. Bloomer was seeking a poem about the controversial Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline. “Pipelines have their own perils that we’re all aware of”, says Cockburn, “so I started writing what was meant to be a spoken-word piece with a rhythm to it. But it evolved very quickly into a song.”

‘States I’m In’, which opens the album, conjures up feelings of mystery and dread. “It’s literally a ‘dark night of the soul’ kind of song”, Cockburn explains, “as it starts with sunset and ends with dawn. It passes through the night. The song is about illusion and self-delusion, looking at the tricks you play on yourself.”  He adds: “Maybe it’s also a play on words about me living in the States.”

Cockburn, who won the inaugural People’s Voice Award at the Folk Alliance International conference in February and will be inducted into the Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame in September, continues to find inspiration in the world around him and channel those ideas into songs. “My job is to try and trap the spirits of things in the scratches of pen on paper and the pulling of notes out of metal”, he once noted. More than forty years after embarking on his singer-songwriting career, Cockburn keeps kicking at the darkness so that it might bleed daylight.

If you would like to order a copy of an album (CD or Vinyl format), download a copy or just listen to snippets of selected tracks then click below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website (use the left and right arrows below to scroll along or back to see the full selection).

Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.

Artist’s website: http://brucecockburn.com/

Here’s thirty-five minutes of Bruce Cockburn courtesy of Acoustic Guitar Sessions: