Thursday, December 29, 2011

Bruce Cockburn: An Appreciation Part 1

Bruce Cockburn: An Appreciation


I don’t know Bruce Cockburn, but I’ve been listening to his music religiously since about 1984, have heard him in concert at least half a dozen times, and exchanged awkward pleasantries with him after the last concert when he was signing his latest CD for me. I’m sure I’ve read dozens of reviews and interviews, subscribed to the “Humans” list-serve, and consider him a dear, if very distant, friend, with whom I feel a great kinship.

I discovered Bruce after reading a review of one of his performances in the Chicago Reader and was intrigued enough to go out and look for recordings at a local record store. All I could find was a cassette copy of Stealing Fire. I was hooked by the first notes of Lover’s in a Dangerous Time and was mesmerized by the entire album. Obviously, I was drawn to the Anti-Imperialist fervor, the humanity, the poetry, and the strong music holding it all together. I picked up a copy of Trouble with Normal soon after and I have followed Bruce, album by album, ever since.

I did not immediately go back and get copies of everything that Bruce had ever done. So, my knowledge of his earlier work was somewhat sketchy, filled in now and then by an occasional purchase such as In the Falling Dark or the retrospectives and re-releases, like Waiting for a Miracle and Circles in the Stream. Over the last several years, I have collected all, or almost all of the rest and have spent many hours listening to these songs.

From time to time on the Humans group (, a long simmering debate flares up related to Bruce’s Christianity and its importance or relevance to understanding his work, a debate which sometimes makes me uncomfortable. Coming to Bruce’s work starting in the 1980’s, during his anti-Imperialist phase, and because I am not a Christian, I have tended to downplay that aspect of his work, which was easy to do given my long focus on his post-70’s work. I certainly accept that he has professed to be a committed Christian and it was a significant aspect of his work, particularly in the mid to late 70’s, but I could not say one way or another whether he still considers himself a Christian. Certainly, Paul Simon’s most recent album So Beautiful or So What contains more overtly Christian themes and imagery than any of Bruce’s most recent albums. And Richard Thompson is supposedly a devout Sufi Muslim, but I’d be hard pressed to see how that would help me understand his songs Beeswing or ’52 Vincent.

The debate is likely to rage again with the publication of Brian Walsh’s book Bruce Cockburn and the Christian Imagination although that book is so far garnering negative reviews on the Humans group.

Chapter 1

Bruce Cockburn is, first and foremost, a visionary artist; engaging and probing songwriter, spiritual seeker, truth teller, and extraordinary guitarist. He is a songwriter’s songwriter and musician’s musician. If you measure success in album sales, or chart position, or merchandise sales, or mentions in People Magazine or Rolling Stone, then Bruce is not for you. While he has failed to scale the mountain of popular adoration, he has nonetheless had an extraordinary career as a solo artist.

There are very few musicians who have recorded for more than 40 years, putting out consistently good records every couple of years, with few, if any, significant artistic misfires. He has continued to gain in popularity and plays to packed venues across Canada, the United States, and Europe, with occasional forays to Japan and the Far East.

He has traveled to war-torn locations like Central America, Africa, Cambodia, Afghanistan and Iraq. The songs that have resulted from these journeys celebrate the resilience of the human spirit, chide the powerful and greedy, and turn a spotlight on corruption and injustice. He would most likely bristle at these thoughts, preferring to consider his successes a matter of luck, or simply the result of dogged persistence or even stubbornness.

The First Three Albums

After his year at the Berklee School of Music and a number of years playing in moderately successful bands in and around Toronto, Bruce struck out on his own. Bruce said later that he was “trying to leave behind the years of bad rock bands, trying to clear out psychedelic decadence that was itself a reaction to institutional decadence. Looking for purity in nature. Looking for connections behind things..." (World of Wonders Tour Program, posted on Those years also “left [him] with a little body of songs that [he] liked better when [he] played alone” (from "Singer Follows 'Morality' to Success" by Salvatore Caputo, The Arizona Republic, 6 October 1995. Posted on so he ended up going solo.

Bruce was hardly alone in going solo or acoustic. After the Summer of Love and the British Invasions, folk music and singer-songwriters were making a comeback in 1969 and 1970. The Beatles were breaking up. Crosby, Stills and Nash had released their first album. John Sebastian went solo at Woodstock. Joni Mitchell had released a couple of albums. The Band was playing their hippy, country tunes. Jorma and Jack formed Hot Tuna to play old blues and folk tunes. James Taylor burst on the scene. Dylan had reappeared after his seclusion and unplugged again and then went Country with Nashville Skyline. And, of course, Gordon Lightfoot was recording If You Could Read My Mind, while Glenn Campbell and Johnny Cash were on TV.
I mention these, not to necessarily draw specific comparisons between Bruce and any of these artists. But at the same time that loud rock & roll was reaching a crescendo, there was a resurgence of more introspective, acoustic-based music. These artists form part of the milieu that Bruce was becoming a part of.
Bruce’s first three albums (through Sunwheel Dance) considered together could be seen as part of his apprenticeship and growing mastery in his trade. From the start, his music is imbued with spiritual overtones drawing from a variety of religious traditions. Indeed, he said as much in 1995 about the first three albums:

"I think [the influence of Eastern philosophies] were there [in the first three albums]. Actually, I think they are still are. Somebody referred to Buddhists as 'great technicians of the sacred' which I think is true as it goes. I wasn't a Christian yet when I made those records although I was heading (being dragged by the nose might be better) that way. And I have been exposed to various aspects of Buddhist teaching, first through the Beat writers, then Merton, Chogyam Trungpa, the Sutras themselves, etc."
from answers by Bruce Cockburn to questions asked by the Humans discussion list. July-November 1995. album notes.

John McCurdy has done a very detailed exegesis of Bruce’s first album in his on-line biography, so I won’t go into great detail here. In my opinion, he goes overboard in some of his interpretations and the songs sometimes buckle under the weight of his insights. He feels that “Bruce is in search of an ecological or earth-centered Christianity” in Spring Song and characterizes the whole album as “eco-Christianity.” What is certainly true throughout Bruce’s long career is a restless searching that has carried him to the ends of the earth and that he has thought long and has an inquisitive mind.

The songs in this collection reveal many of the elements that appear throughout his work, although the lyrical content doesn’t have the emotional depth and clarity of his later works. The guitar playing and the musical composition are very sure-handed and mature, although the songs tend not to follow distinct or traditional forms with clearly demarcated verses and choruses. His characteristically fluid fingerpicking is evident throughout, as is his humor and thoughtfulness. Thematically, he has already begun to play with contrasting symbolism of light and darkness, and the sometimes dreary urban environment (“Toronto don’t take my song away”) versus the natural environment (Going to the Country is all Sunshine and happiness).

The songs are introspective and dreamlike. The world that they explore is a small, local world: a trip to the country; a rainy afternoon; a surreal and childlike bicycle trip; drinking and smoking and playing music with is musical friends; contemplating the changing seasons; being “together alone” with a lover; contemplating the sea and the “Thirteenth Mountain”. Solitude predominates and the cast of characters is small and they are little more than ciphers. Even the musical friends are barely described. The most distinct and memorable characters are the cows in Going to the Country.

As a point of comparison, James Taylor released Sweet Baby James the same year. JT was several years younger than Bruce. In terms of guitar playing, I might give a slight edge to Taylor, in that he displays a more fully formed personal style than Bruce. In terms of songwriting, nothing in Bruce’s release can come close to the emotional depth of Fire and Rain or the evocation of a real landscape like Going to Carolina in his previous release. None of his landscapes are as clear as the opening lines of Sweet Baby James. Fire and Rain is about a real, flesh and blood woman, even if she is barely described in the song.

To be fair to Bruce, Taylor seems to have burst upon the scene fully formed and never really scaled the same heights again. His guitar playing may have become more fluid and relaxed over time, but there are no real leaps in skill or dexterity over the course of his career. And in terms of emotional depth, Bruce didn’t suffer through mental illness and heroin addiction. To borrow a line from Taylor, Bruce’s first album left him, “with 10 miles behind him and 10,000 more to go…”

to be continued...

Monday, September 12, 2011

Takoma Park Folk Festival

I had no idea I'd not posted anything since May. I guess it's been a busier summer than I had thought.

Be that as it may, I performed yesterday at the TPFF at a songwriter's showcase with three other songwriters in a round robin. We each got to sing 4 songs (except for Jeanne Bayou who arrived late). David Alberding lives in Hagarstown these days. He's a big burly guy and a great storyteller. His guitar playing reminds me a little of David Wilcox. He has to be doing some alternate tunings to get some of the sounds he does out of the guitar. Austin Ellis is a younger guy and has a Zen-like demeanor and had his long (I think) brown hair in a funky little bun. You can imagine him being a massage therapist or something like that. His music reminds me very much of Jason Mraz, mellow and jazzy with a little bit of rap thrown in. Jeanne performed with Ron Goad on percussion. Her songs were a little more in the traditional folk vein with Ron's percussion providing a little bit of edge and drive.

I performed my songs Thorns that Guard the Rose, Juliet's on Fire, Never Too Late (a new sequel to Ginger & Fred), and I had a Dream Last Night. For some reason I felt a little bit of nerves or butterflies and so I tried to keep the guitar playing simple. I had also had to change my strings on Saturday and I think I prefer my strings a little on the deader side. New strings often sound a little "tinny" to me. For the most part I think that I did pretty well, though I'm not sure (especially after listening to a couple of other groups at the same stage) that the sound on the monitor and the sound going out to the crowd were even remotely the same.

It was a warm, sunny afternoon. After so much rain this past week that was a nice change. The shaded grounds around our stage were still muddy from the deluge. Hopefully, a good time was had by all.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Bruce Cockburn at the Birchmere May 9

Concert Review: Bruce Cockburn at the Birchmere May 9, 2011.

Setlist (after the first 4, the order might not be correct since I wasn’t taking notes)

Last night of the world
Lovers in a Dangerous Time
Strange Waters
Bone in My Ear (on Manzer solid-body charango)
Boundless (w/Annabelle Chovostek)
Driving away (w/Annabelle)
Instrumental (from Jenny – Bruce on 12-String)
Littlest Prisoner
Call it Democracy
Called me back
Each one lost
Wondering Where the Lions Are
Arrows of light
If a tree falls

Comets of Kandahar
All the diamonds
Tie me at the crossroad

This was a kick ass concert, with a mix of old and new songs (only about 6 songs from the latest CD). Last Night of the World really came on strong with drummer Gary Graig pounding out a pulsating beat and Bruce really locked in. Mango was delicious, with the intricate guitar picking meshing sensuously with the violin. Overall the sound quality was really good, but the balance was not always right. On a few songs, it seemed like Jenny Scheinman's violin was way too soft.

It was a real treat for Annabelle Chvostek (formerly of the Wailing Jennys) to come out and join the trio on Boundless (mandolin/vocals) and Driving Away (guitar/vocals) and both songs really hit the mark.

Introducing Bone in my Ear and noting the unusual instrument that he had strapped on, Bruce told a funny story about how charango’s are traditionally made of an armadillo shell with the hair still on them. If they are really good ones, the story goes that the hair keeps growing. Bruce has one, but the hair didn’t grow so it probably isn’t that good. In any event, he couldn’t figure out how to amplify it, so he asked Linda Manzer to make him an electric charango. Looks like a tiny, red 12-string. I’ve never been a big fan of the song, but watching him play the charango with violin and his voice in really good form it sounded great.

I wonder if he pulled out Call it Democracy since he was in DC and it was another treat. This old song about International Development Aid and the rape of the Third World seemed particularly appropriate given the proximity to the seat of Western Power.

Bruce did not talk with the audience that much last night. The discussion of charangos and a longer intro to Each One Lost, a song from the new album about witnessing the ceremony for fallen soldiers at an airforce base in the Middle East, were the most extensive bits. It was interesting to watch him play the dulcimer on Arrows of Light. He was standing very upright with his whole body and neck tensed. The main set closed with a smoking, ferocious version of If a Tree Falls, although the finale kind of collapsed as though all three of them were totally exhausted.

They all came back on stage after a short break for the encore. Comets of Kandahar, an instrumental off the new CD was very good, as was All the Diamonds. Crossroads lacked a little punch. Gifts was a short, sweet finale. I think they were all pretty tired at that point and the encore overall just didn’t match the intensity of the main set.

Bruce, Jenny, and Gary were out in the foyer signing autographs after the show. We waited in line for about 25 minutes to get a signature and have a few words with Bruce. Who knows if we’ll ever get the chance again. Anyway, he was very gracious. I muttered something silly about hoping that when I grow up, I can be half as good a guitarist as he is (I’m only a few years younger than Bruce). He replied that he feels the same way, just a few more years and he’ll get it right. Jenny was a little pissy (perhaps just tired and maybe not happy that no one was bringing her CDs to get signed). Gary seemed the most relaxed and happy just to be there. I had a few positive comments for him about the start of the show and how his drums really got people into it and he said he really liked that part of the show and that song in particular.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Mini-Review: Paul Simon So Beautiful or So What

Go out and BUY this record. 4 1/2 STARS.

It's right up there with Graceland, Rhythm of the Saints and his early classics. The Afterlife is a hoot ("You got to fill out a form first, then you stand in a line" and "all of the noses from Buddha to Moses got to stand in the line"). Also the title cut and Dazzling Blue and the one that says "Love is eternal sacred light". Getting Ready for Christmas will probably be hugely overplayed next Christmas, but it's vintage Simon. Lots of complex rhythms and intricate guitar figures that you'd expect from his Graceland/Saints days.

I've read some complaints about Simon being too religious on this album (meaning Christian). As a confirmed agnostic, I'd have to say, GET OVER IT. As the man said about 20 years ago, "The Cross is in the Ballpark. Why deny the Obvious, child?"

Can a New Age Buddhist pop song be hip? Review of Junior Burke’s While You Were Gone (2007)

This CD would be very easy not to find, and that’s a shame. It’s a really good record, by a really good songwriter and singer and I didn’t find it until about 3 years after it was released. I know that I would never have found it had I not been looking, but I was looking for Thom Bishop and not Junior Burke. This story starts in the late 1970’s in Chicago. I was learning how to play the guitar and spent a fair amount of time going to clubs like Orphan’s and Somebody Else’s Troubles to listen to a lot of young singer-songwriters. One of the ones that stood out the most was Thom Bishop. He had a trademark mix of smooth literate folk and pop. He was deeply romantic, but struck a jaded pose. You had no doubt that like John Lennon, he could carve you up with a few well chosen words.

He wrote a number of musical theater pieces, including one on Sonny Liston that he co-wrote with Jim Tullio. He put out an LP called Wireless Wonder in 1981. He had a song recorded but never released by Bob Dylan in some late-80’s sessions produced by David Bromberg. He went to LA to pursue songwriting, screenwriting and supposedly writing the Great American Novel. I went to Austin in the mid-80’s following my own path.

In those pre-Internet days, he pretty much vanished. I found his CD Restless State of Grace by accident (a review of one of my releases was on the same page as a review of his CD in Dirty Linen) in the early 90’s. My wife found another CD ( Feed Me a Dream) in the late 90’s. I would search the internet for him on occasion and would find nothing. About a year ago I finally found a reference to him on a Wikipedia page where the mystery unraveled. Thomas Burke Bishop Jr. had changed his name to Junior Burke, become the head of the writing program at Naropa University in Boulder Colorado, written a novel, and released a “debut” CD. That CD was While You Were Gone, which is a very fine CD produced by Chicagoan Jim Tullio.

The recording and production are first rate throughout, as are all the musicians. Jim Tullio has produced records for such artists' as Richie Havens, Dave Mason, Rick Danko, Rosalie Sorrels, Mary McCaslin, David Bromberg, Steve Goodman, John Martyn, Mavis Staples, and many, many more. He contributes electric and acoustic guitars, bass, BG Vox and Percussion. Ed Tossing is excellent on piano on a number of cuts. John Rice contributes Guitars, Dobro, Fiddle and Bazouki. Travis Bernhard and Mark Walker are sitting in on Drums. Billy Panda contributes electric guitars on a couple tunes and slide on another. Chris Cameron plays the Hammond B3 on Blessed.

The words that come to mind when describing Burke’s songwriting are sophisticated, ironic, and literate. He’s as comfortable with “Copeland and Foster and Bernstein” as he is with Lennon, Leonard Cohen, Muddy Waters and R&B and Blues Singer-Songwriter Doc Pomus. He lays out the tracks on the CD with a novelist or playwright’s sense of structure, to tell a story. It starts off with the premise that love and happiness are unlikely and proceeds to demonstrate it through a series of songs where he tries on a variety of personas and styles from Literate Rocker, folk singer, Irish balladeer, Soft Jazz crooner and others. In the process, he strips away the masks that he has worn until he arrives at his true self expressed best in the refrain of the title cut, It All Happened While You Were Gone. At that point he can express and obtain true love in The Cool of the Day. But that is not quite the end of the story.

The CD kicks off with Teleclone Universe. Telecloning is some pretty complex quantum physics about cloning and teleporting information to multiple receivers that boils down here to a world where anything is possible (this is more Star Trek than Los Alamos). Think of it as multiple parallel universes where John Lennon doesn’t die, Jack Kerouac gets sober and is still on the road, there’s no Atomic Age, and Reagan waits backstage etc. Good mind-bending fun in a blues rock package. The moral of the story is that “in the teleclone universe/life rings clear and true/you end up with me/I end up with you.” The rest of the album makes clear that this is an unlikely outcome, especially factoring in Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. You won’t understand Quantum Physics any better after listening to this, but you will have a smile on your face.

Black Eyed Susan is co-written with Billy McKay. This is folk finger-picking gem about a dark eyed woman of mystery and the price that you pay for loving her. The theme and the monotone vocal are both reminiscent of Leonard Cohen’s classic Suzanne, though you would never mistake Burke’s tenor for Cohen’s rasp. Indeed, Cohen is a major influence on Burke. This is one of the real stellar cuts here, but is very understated and might slip by your attention. Here’s a taste: “She will say she’ll stay forever/she will say that you’re the first/she’ll promise you water from heaven’s well/while you’re dying there of thirst.”

Bed Full of Blue is a beautiful ballad about dreaming of a long-lost love co-written with Jim Tullio. This is typical of the romantic wistfulness and seemingly effortless wordplay that colors many of Burke/Bishop’s ballads. The song starts out with “What were you doing in my bed last night? What were you doing in my head last night?” and ends wistfully with, “What were you doing in my mind last night? What kind of truth did I find last night?” He also manages to seamlessly integrate references to Muddy Waters and blues songwriter Doc Pomus (Drifters, Ray Charles).

Tunnel at the End of the Light is an old Thom Bishop song reborn in an Irish/Celtic folk tune arrangement. I remember hearing Thom do this solo many, many years ago. The story is a Modern Romance, a cosmic attraction. It starts out with, “They were a match made in heaven/ He would say she was his kind of girl/ She had that something about her/ That made him jump out of his skin.” But somehow their love takes a turn for the worse. After the inevitable flameout, she begins to pick up the pieces. “Now the years have imparted a distance/ She sees it all now as a dream/Just something that happened to someone/ Without so much pain in between.” All of this, complete with Tenor and Irish Flute, Button Accordion, Bazouki, Piano and guitars and drums. Imagine Van Morrison with the Chieftains backing him.

Walking My Karma is another co-write with Jim Tullio. Burke plays the soft jazz crooner (think Michael Buble) warbling a hip, pop-Buddhist lyric. But then can a New Age Buddhist pop song be hip? The song reminds us that we get what we pay for and that we pay for our mistakes, whether in this or a past life.

What the Devil Loves is a bluesy number co-written with Nashville songwriter Fred Koller. Junior sings with gusto that, “We’ve all got something that we’re hungry for, that’s what the Devil loves.” And for good measure he adds: “Devil loves a poor man, poor man got to eat/Devil loves to tempt him with the taste of something sweet/Open up your Bible, there in Chapter One/Adam bit that apple and the devil’s job was done.” Junior adds some solid harmonica touches to the Guitar, Bazouki and Fiddle accompaniment.

Key to the Kingdom showcases Junior’s smooth soulful vocals and vibrato in a shuffling little tune about feeling left behind and wanting to get ahead in the world. “One buck buys you nothing/five bucks not much more/ten bucks wins the door prize/then you've got to lock the door/give me the key to the kingdom/I'm in a terrible bind/everybody's grabbing something/I think I’ll go get mine.” The smooth performance masks and softens the selfish longing attitude of the lyric.

It All Happened While You Were Gone is another old Thom Bishop love song and the tangled webs we weave, the loss of a true love and losing and finding our true self. This is an interesting choice as the title for the CD. Perhaps the ending sheds some light on the dichotomy of Junior Burke/Thom Bishop and the uneasy truce between the two elements of his persona. “It’s a sin, it’s a shame /What is done in the name /Of true love, till that love wanders home/I can’t grieve anymore /For what was done before/‘Cause it all happened while you were gone….” The song is about making peace with the past, realizing that what's done is done and being able to move on.

The song Cool of the Day is a jazz-inflected tune of true love and the support that a true lover brings “In the cool of the day, I can feel you…” and “When my strength starts to stray, you surround me/All my fear goes away once you’ve found me.” There’s some great piano work by Ed Tossing (as there is on several songs).

Autumn Ending is a new recording of a song released previously on Feed Me a Dream. While this is a very good version of the song, again with wonderful piano work by Ed Tossing I was perplexed at first at why it might be here. The song invokes a moment of purity and innocence just before JFK’s assassination. The song is an attempt to recapture that moment of clear blue sky before winter comes and changes everything. This is the spiritual heart of the record and the clearest expression of Burke/Bishop’s dilemma. He truly wants to shed all the masks and cynicism to get to that pure and innocent feeling, but to him it’s more dream than reality. It slips away so easily. “When I awoke, it went like smoke” as he writes in another a song from Feed me a Dream.

The album closes with Blessed , which is very reminiscent of late Leonard Cohen tunes like The Future and Everybody Knows . The song is an apocalyptic vision spoken over an insistent rock beat, Hammond organ, and electric guitars. Junior chants that “Blessed are the hopeless with too much to bear/blessed are the clerics for their twisted prayer/blessed are the fingers that shuffle the cards/blessed are the fires in the barren yards.” The song is filled with resurrections, saints, heretics, innocents, criminals and brides. There is some shred of hope in the lyrics, but you get more of the sense of Hieronymus Bosch or Brueghel. If we are to survive, we will have to overcome this reality. You don’t do that with wishful thinking or longing for lost loves. If at all, you do it by being who you are.

If you can find it, pick up a copy of Junior’s novel, Something Gorgeous. It’s a great read and an alternative take (think Teleclone Universe) on The Great Gatsby. It takes on many of the same themes of identity, true love, and fate that he tackles in this fine CD.

Monday, April 11, 2011

It's All Happening at the Zoo

I do believe it, I do believe it's true...

Yesterday afternoon, Laura and I went to the National Zoo. Got there around 1 pm and it was overcast and chilly. The main purpose of our visit was to go and see the lion cubs. There were seven cubs born in two litters last August and September. They did not disappoint and Laura took some cute video snippets that she's posting on her facebook page.

We also saw the "new" Pandas, zebras, cheetahs, and various and sundry other animals. By the time we left, the sun had broken through and it was warming up to a respectable Spring temperature.

Things happening this week - I'll be performing (weather permitting) at the Paradise Springs Winery in Clifton VA on Friday evening from 5:30-8:30 pm. For more information and directions you can go to .

Paul Simon is releasing a new album tomorrow. So far, I've read some reasonably good reviews, but I'm reserving judgement. Is a new album by Paul really relevant or necessary? I guess we'll find out. In any event, there's nothing he could release that would diminish his overall relevance to the musical conversation of the last 50 years. Hopefully, I can be as good or better than I am now, when I reach his age.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

CD Review: Bruce Cockburn, Small Source of Comfort

I’ve been listening to Bruce Cockburn since 1984. I read a review of a concert he had done in Chicago and I was intrigued, so I went out and found a cassette of Stealing Fire. I was captivated from the first notes of Lovers in a Dangerous Time and I’ve been listening ever since.

Bruce’s new release, Small Source of Comfort, is another worthy addition to the collection. Some reviewers have hailed it as a return to form and to his “folk” roots. While I would say that his last studio effort, Life’s Short Call Now, was somewhat of a disappointment, you can’t get much folkier than a live solo acoustic recording such as Slice of Life. To me, Bruce is working from the same sonic palette that he has been working with, to good effect, at least since 1991’s Nothing But a Burning Light. What’s new, or at least different here, are his collaboration with Jazz violinist Jenny Scheinman and his collaboration with Annabelle Chvostek on a couple of tunes. There are also five standout instrumental pieces. This is an unusually large number, although one or two instrumentals has become common over the last 20 years and more instrumentals have surfaced on some of the deluxe re-issues.

One thing that you can usually count on from Bruce is a strong opening track, which sets a tone and sometimes the theme for what follows: songs like Lovers in a Dangerous Time, Dream Like Mine, Night Train, Tried and Tested, If a Tree Falls, and Call it Democracy. Here, the song is Iris of the World. It reminds me a little of his song World of Wonders, especially the acoustic version on Slice of Life. It starts out with the mundane indignities and uncertainties of crossing a border in these post 9/11 days and how the minutiae that they check misses the bigger picture. That is followed by snapshot images from the road and the feelings that they spark. The third verse is kind of self-assessment, the kind of mental chatter that I can imagine myself getting into on a long solitary drive. Despite the indignities suffered in the passage, what comes through and what lasts is love. Driving is the source of many of the images that fuel the songs on the entire collection.

Call Me Rose is a pretty unique addition to the Cockburn catalog. I can’t think of the last time (if there ever was one) where he ventured into satire. This song has prompted some debate among reviewers and among the fans on the Humans group on Yahoo. While I can say that this is not great Cockburn, it is certainly intriguing. Despite the outrageous premise of Richard Nixon being reincarnated as a poor single mother in the projects, it doesn’t seem that far-fetched. Where it falls short is that it doesn’t really illuminate the condition of the single mother, and thereby is merely amusing rather than biting. Also, Richard Nixon seems like a pretty dated target for this kind of rumination. He also wasn’t that bad a President on the domestic front. He certainly didn’t advocate the undoing of the New Deal or even welfare. Perhaps having him return as a Vietnamese peasant in a sweatshop would have been more appropriate. Or just changing the subject to Richard Cheney would have been more delicious.

Bohemian 3-Step is the first of the very strong and engaging instrumentals, which is just guitar with a touch of light drums. Bruce provides the bass with his strong thumb. Radiance is the first tune that really highlights Jenny Scheinman. In contrast to the lyrics, the music is actually quite dark and mysterious with the violin and accordion giving it a European world-weary feeling. For me, this is not the kind of tune that Bruce’s vocals shine on. They come across as a little formal and stilted.

5:51 is a blues tune, another form that Bruce has used sparingly over the years. The last one I can think of is Soul of a Man from Nothing but a Burning Light. The “cops at the door in the middle of the night” harkens back to Peggy’s Kitchen Wall and the “diesel on the breeze” and "too much traffic on my mind" ties this song of waking up tired, aching and distracted to the road theme. Here, the vocals are more comfortable

Driving Away is one of two collaborations with Annabelle Chvostek. The liner notes suggest that the lyrics were mostly written by Annabelle and I would say that they are more impressionistic than Bruce’s lyrics usually are. The listener has to fill in the blanks on the story (if there really even is one). The song is about leaving something or someone behind and the images are of longing and regret. Lois on the Autobahn is another instrumental, written for his mother who died last year. It’s a jazz tune supported by Jenny’s violin. The collaboration really shines on this piece. While the guitar work could stand on its own, it would really lose much of its beauty without the violin part.

Boundless is the second collaboration with Annabelle C. According to the liner notes, this was mostly lyrics by Bruce. This song is marked by strong religious and spiritual imagery and is probably the song (aside from Iris of the World) that many long-time fans will gravitate to. It is certainly the “deepest” song on the record, and open to many interpretations depending on your spiritual bent. I also catch an echo of Wait No More where he says that “Lightning's a kiss that lands hot on the loins of the sky.” Here, Bruce says that he “feel[s] these serpents of desire ripple my skin like ropes of fire.” Perhaps to avoid getting too serious, Bruce places the humorous song, Called Me Back, right after this one. Humorous songs are another rarity in the Cockburn catalog. This is not to say that Bruce doesn’t have a sense of humor, just that he will never be mistaken for Loudon Wainwright or Jimmy Buffett. The song has some lyrical similarity to Anything Can Happen, from 1989’s Big Circumstance.

Comets of Kandahar is another instrumental showcasing Jenny Scheinman’s sometimes dissonant jazz violin over a strong, insistent drumbeat and, of course, Bruce’s steady guitar. There are also some vaguely Middle Eastern accents to some of the violin riffs. It was inspired by the planes taking off at night and Bruce described it as “Django meets John Lee Hooker.” The violin takes a more supporting role in Each One Lost, a simple folk melody about the ceremony for two dead soldiers at an airbase in the Middle East.

Parnassus and Fog is another guitar and violin collaboration, with some accordion and barely noticeable electric guitar from producer Colin Linden. Some of the guitar work harkens back to the instrumental style of late 70’s albums like Dancing in the Dragons Jaw. Ancestors is another instrumental. This time it is just Bruce and Gary Craig on Singing Bowl or chimes with some delay effects on the guitar. The album ends with the short song Gifts, something that Bruce wrote about 40 years ago. He used to close his live shows with it, but never thought it felt right to record it until now. It is a non-sectarian prayer of sorts, acknowledging our oneness with nature, with the rain and sunlight and rocky shore. The song of the rain becomes his song and his gift to us in the end.

After 31 albums it is a little difficult not to make comparisons. For example, you might ask if Bruce made a compendium of road songs similar to Speechless, would Driving Away or Iris of the World make the cut? The bottom line is that this is a good album by a consistently strong artist. I’ve made mention of connections to other albums and his past work, but this album stands on its own and would be a reasonable introduction to his music. For his long-time fans, this should have more than enough sonic and lyrical gems to satisfy.

Also posted on

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

CD Review: Leeann Atherton – Heart Traveled Road

Leeann Atherton is in fine form on this 2009 release produced by her long-time collaborator Rich Brotherton. This album showcases Leeann’s voice and songwriting, and covers a vast musical landscape from Acoustic Blues to Blues Rock, Country Rock, Gospel, a little Jazz, and Folk. If you’ve heard Leeann, particularly in her live shows, you know that she projects the image of a very strong woman who knows her own mind. That comes through in this collection of songs, but there is also the counterpoint of at least playing the more traditional female role, or perhaps, more accurately, playing off that stereotype. Leeann has strong Southern roots, having grown up in South Carolina, spent time in Nashville, and about 25 years in Austin.

Leeann’s voice is a powerful instrument. I saw her perform recently and she really sunk her teeth into Janis’ Piece of My Heart. But she can also sing a sweet and soulful ballad and there are moments of tender vulnerability, such as in I Believe where she sings: “What I’m trying to say/If I’m still not clear/My heart is on the table/I’m standing naked here.” The standout tracks are Looking for a Rainbow, a gospel tune about keeping your focus through the storms of life, Change of Heart a blues song about the battle of the sexes with a nice twist, and Soul Song, a perfect little folk-infused love song marked by beautiful interplay between the finger-picked guitar and the violin.

Remember Me is a little old-time Jazz shuffle, that lets the mind wander back to old movies and is also a very sly brush off song. Kiss is solid Country rock and starts off with a bang: “Got me dizzy, got me spinnin’, /got me wantin’ it again/ your kiss. /I’m drunk on the moon, /don’t you leave me so soon, /not like this.” There are quite a few breakup or brush off songs in the set and the men in these stories seem to come out on the short end more often than not. Not sure if that is fresh autobiography or just good songwriting.

Rich Brotherton’s production, arranging, and playing (acoustic and electric guitar, bass, mandolin, mandola, cittern, and harmonium) is impeccable throughout. Rich has played with and produced records for a who’s who of Austin and Texas songwriters and singers over the last two decades. He’s worked with Robert Earl Keen, Eliza Gilkyson and many others. He even played Mandolin, Acoustic Guitar and Bass on a track of mine back in 1990. And Leeann helped me out with backing vocals on a couple of tunes in 1992. So perhaps I’m biased, but I think this is a very good record that will find a place in your heart.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Just Back from a Weekend in Austin

We flew out to Austin last Thursday to spend a little time with some friends and hang out doing Austin things. Cynthia and Bill have a great house in Lost Creek and since the temperature in DC was hovering in the 40's, it was great to be in the 80's for a few days.

We had a leisurely breakfast on Friday, then took a walk on the Town Lake Hike and Bike trail, doing the loop from MoPac to the Lamar Foot Bridge. We were amazed at all the changes in the downtown skyline and all the new residential construction downtown. At least the trail was still more or less the same. After the walk we had a late lunch at Magnolia Cafe on Lake Austin Blvd. I had a heaping bowl of black beans with avocado and pico de gallo and a cornbread pancake on the side. Great Austin comfort food.

Friday evening we drove down to South Lamar for the Happy Hour/Dinner at Maria's Taco Xpress. An old acquaintance of mine, Leeann Atherton, was performing there outdoors on the deck with a band. She was singing and playing guitar, with Juliann Banks on bass, Sonny Coleman on lead guitar and Bill the Buddha on drums. They played a mix of covers and original tunes, mostly high energy rock and blues. Leeann can belt it out with the best of them and she did a fine Janis impression on Piece of my Heart. After the show we drove up Lamar to a "new" place, a Greek wine/beer bar called Opa's in an Old House with a great patio area in front underneath a pair of gorgeous Live Oak trees. That was a great finish to the evening.

On Saturday, we drove over to Manchaca & Stassney and had breakfast at the Bakehouse. Cynthia told a funny story about a column that John Kelso had written about them and calling them out for their pretentions at trying to be an "International" restaurant in South Austin. They have pictures of International destinations on the walls and lamp covers in the booths which are globe maps.

After breakfast, Laura and I drove around a bit, taking William Cannon over to 290 near where we used to live and then took 290 up to MoPac and drove around downtown, mostly taking 5th Street east past I-35 and then 6th Street back across town. We stopped at Waterloo Records and I looked around, while Laura did a little shopping at Chico's. Then we drove across the river and stopped for a couple of drinks at Chuy's on Barton Springs. Inevitably, we talked about our own retirement plans and how maybe we ought to put Austin on our short list. The major drawback is whether we could handle the summer heat again.

That night we had a belated "Retirement" Party for Cynthia at their place. A lot of good friends were there: Mita, Cindy & Gemma, Anne & Dan, our friend Danielle, and a couple of others. There were fresh squeezed lime Margaritas; chicken, beef, and pork margaritas with lots of fixins; plenty of beer and wine; and, ice cream to top it off. Definitely off our diets. I played a few songs as the night wound down.

Sunday, Bill and I drove out near Bee Caves and played golf at Falconhead Golf Course. It was overcast and much cooler, which was good for the golf. The round started out pretty well, but unravelled a bit as it went on, but it was a pleasant way to spend the afternoon. That night we drove down to the Saxon Pub to hear the Resentments. Laura and I hadn't heard them since 2008, so we hadn't seen them since Stephen Bruton died. John Dee Graham had also gone his own way, so, for us at least, it was a fairly new lineup. You had Bruce Hughes on Bass, Jud Newcomb on electric and acoustic guitars, Miles Zuniga on acoustic guitar, Jeff Plankenhorn on pedal steel, mandolin, and guitar and Johnny Morocco on Drums. I think that Jeff might have been with them the last time we saw them, but he was more just a backup player at that point. This time he was a full member of the ensemble and some of his songs were among the highlights of the evening. They are really fantastic and have great energy. They mix country, folk, blues, rock and even a little jazz (mostly Bruce Hughes on the jazz). A great evening and a great end to the weekend.

Monday we were up early to catch a flight back to DC and our lingering cold spell. Too bad we couldn't just quit our jobs and move back...

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Nobody Died at Three Mile Island (Tsunami edition)

Also posted at Smirking

It came as no surprise really that Nuclear Power has been pitching itself for a comeback against a backdrop of Global Warming, Wall Street greed and an oil slick disaster of epic proportions. Indeed, many people have recently been pitching Nuclear as a green energy option. But now Godzilla and Mothra have joined the conversation in the wake of a deadly tsunami and the smoking ruins of Fukushima Dai Ichi. So, here we are again debating Nuclear safety, technological hubris and our overall ability to manage dangerous materials in perpetuity.

Of course, Nuclear’s really more like some crazed zombie returned from Dawn of the Dead. In the late 70’s and early 80’s I was pretty well versed in nuclear power plant economics and environmental concerns. It was a hobby of mine, but I was relieved and quite happy to move onto other things as it appeared to die as a viable option (ironically, as much because of cheap Saudi oil as anything else).

These days, even before this latest issue, I was very ambivalent about the technology and its problems, although willing to grant it a sort of grudging “support”, along the lines sketched out by James Lovelock. In essence, the argument in favor of allowing a nuclear renaissance boils down to: we’re all screwed anyway, so why not? I mean, it’s not like the species (particularly Homo Americanus) has shown great judgment or ecological vision or compassion. We’ve pretty much had an uninterrupted celebration of greed, selfishness and stupidity in high and low places, at least since the late 70’s (well OK, since we crawled out of the premordial slime).

Last year, I dusted off a song I wrote back in the 80’s about the nuclear industry, added a new verse about the Oil Spill (How soon we forget…), and took it out to play for awhile. And now there’s a new verse about the misadventures of the Nuclear Industry and the Tsunami. As I mentioned, I was a bit of a geek about Nuclear issues back in the day. Before Three Mile Island, there was a 1975 accident at a power plant at Browns Ferry in Alabama. A fire started by a candle that wound up doing something like $100 million of damage. As Wikipedia puts it: “the March 22, 1975 fire started when a worker using a candle to search for air leaks accidentally set a temporary cable seal on fire. The fire spread through the wall from the temporary seal.”

At the time that I was contemplating writing a song about TMI, I was thumbing through a book of old folk songs and came across the “Brown’s Ferry Blues”. It seemed like a perfect frame for the story I wanted to tell, though, aside from the tag line “Lord, lord I’ve got the Brown’s Ferry Blues,” there wasn’t a whole lot of the song that I could actually re-use. I did re-use half of a verse, which fits nicely with the overall flavor of the work. Just the other day, it was pointed out to me that the song is by the Delmore Brothers (or may be, there is some controversy on its origins) and may be copyrighted.

I revised the song again after Chernobyl, but since that time it has been gathering dust. Anyway, the words follow and I should be posting a recording of it soon. Let me know what you think and if you have verses to add, feel free to contribute. Unfortunately, I’m sure I’ll have reason to update it again in the not too distant future…

Brown’s Ferry Blues

Fire in the morning, fire at night
When the reactor goes there won’t be no light
Lord, Lord, I’ve got the Brown’s Ferry blues
Put on you coat, get on down the road
Don’t want to be around when it shoots it’s load
Lord, Lord, I’ve got the Brown’s Ferry blues

Early to bed and early to rise
And your woman goes out with the other guys
Lord, Lord, I’ve got the Brown’s Ferry blues
She doesn’t want your contaminated fingers
After it’s over radiation lingers
Lord, Lord, I’ve got the Brown’s Ferry blues

Nobody died at Three Mile Island
Chernobyl was just a few commies fryin
Lord, Lord, I’ve got the Brown’s Ferry blues
Got a two headed mule and a three headed calf
I go out to the barn when I need a good laugh
Lord, Lord, I’ve got the Brown’s Ferry blues

Deepwater oil bearing down on the coast
As Global Warming slowly turns us all into toast
Lord, Lord, I’ve got the Brown’s Ferry blues
GE Lobbyists wading into the fray
Nuclear Power’s gonna save the day
Lord, Lord, I’ve got the Brown’s Ferry blues

Earthquakes and tsunami on a distant shore
Fukushima Dai ichi’s burning down to the core
Lord, Lord, I’ve got the Brown’s Ferry blues
No time to panic, keep your eye on the bottom line
The future looks bright, things’ll be just fine
Lord, Lord, I’ve got the Brown’s Ferry blues

Fire in the morning, fire at night
When the reactor goes there won’t be no light
Lord, Lord, I’ve got the Brown’s Ferry blues
One of these days it’ll be all over
We’ll sleep together in a field of clover
Lord, Lord, I’ve got the Brown’s Ferry blues

(c) 2011. Jim Heald. All Rights Reserved.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Playing at Epicure Cafe tonight, Friday 3/4

I'll be performing at the Epicure Cafe in Fairfax tonight from 8-11 pm. For more information and directions check out

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

We've Lost our Minds (or maybe just our Souls)

All I can say is that I can’t believe what’s going on in this country right now. We (okay, not all of us) seem to have lost our collective f%#king minds. As we bow down at the base of the golden calf and ignore the fact that it was Wall Street crooks that crashed our economy (and none have paid any price whatsoever for it), but now we want to “solve” our financial crisis by taking it out on teachers and street sweepers and janitors and “overpaid” public employees. I mean, sure, they all have private planes and vacation homes in St. Barts, so clearly they make too much money. And by God, they have actual pension plans and decent medical insurance packages, so we’ve got to make sure that we take that away from them. We don’t want them having something that we (whoever WE are) don’t have…

Listen, I understand that unions aren’t perfect, and that it is too difficult to fire bad employees in union shops, but guess what? The reason that some of you still take home a decent wage and some of you still have decent health benefits (even if you have to pay something for them) is because of the unions and the struggles of working people in the early part of the last century. That’s why you have Social Security and Medicare too, but heck, those programs are too expensive and need to be trimmed back too. We all pay too much in taxes that we’ll never see again, right? Well, just remember that if we didn’t have them, each of us would be shelling out to support our parents and grandparents in their old age instead of them living reasonably healthy, independent lives. And that would cost each of US a heck of a lot more than the taxes we pay out to keep the programs running.

Feel free to bow down and kiss the feet of the gazillionaires and keep cutting their taxes, if you think that’s what it’s all about to be a FREE American. But don’t be surprised when they kick you in the teeth, climb over your prostrate body, and swipe your wallet as they run off to devise next Ponzi scheme or cash in on a good business opportunity (probably in some down and out country where they can pay workers pennies a day). The rich aren’t better or smarter than the rest of us, although many of them have absorbed the management and get rich tips of Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan. In other words, they know that there’s a war going on and they finally see the opportunity to roll back the 20th Century that was just a glimmer in Saint Ronnie’s eyes 30 years ago.

Unions, even in their withered state in this country, set the floor or the foundation for the wages and benefits for the rest of us. Take that away and we’ll be nickeled and dimed by the Millionaires and Billionaires every day for the rest of our lives. Our pensions and our salaries and our health benefits will disappear and our houses will get foreclosed on and sooner or later Bangladesh (or some Chinese sweatshop) will start looking like Paradise to us fools.

Realize that most of our current financial crisis WAS NOT caused by greedy unions and Social Security checks going to seniors or Medicare. It was greedy banks and mortgage companies and the pursuit of empire in the Middle East that was much of the cause of the current crisis. Restoring the Clinton-era tax rates would take care of most of the problem. Getting out of Iraq and Afghanistan would help tremendously. Scaling back on our more than 700 military installations around the world would help put us back on the road to full scale solvency.

You may not like unions. But when the Governors of Wisconsin and Ohio strip workers of their collective bargaining rights and get their first round of concessions on wages and benefits, they won’t stop there. They’ll be coming after what’s left of your pension and wages and benefits next. Maybe not this year or next, but it’s coming.