Apr 122024

The Tompkins Square Records label is best known for their allegiance to folk, country, blues and gospel, usually through the application of acoustic guitar, with or without voice. As such, they have developed a name for promoting so-called American Primitive guitar styles. That’s always a misnomer, given the skills of the artist concerned. but the label has stuck and here we are. Amongst names grateful to get a Tompkins Square leg-up are Michael Chapman, Ryley Walker, James Elkington and Nathan Salsburg, classic and classy players all.

The Imaginational Anthems series has covered a lot of good ground lately. Volume XI was an exploration of modern pedal steel; Vol. XII included a tribute to Michael Chapman. Now we have Imaginational Anthem vol. XIII : Songs of Bruce Cockburn, a tribute to the work of a Canadian artist unduly overlooked in favor of his better known compatriots. A very lazy descriptor might be the Canadian Richard Thompson, given his agility with a six-string and teasingly lyrical wordplay, but Cockburn’s dreamy soundscapes pack an altogether different spiritual punch.

Here, a selection of Tompkins Square stalwarts offer their take on him and his songs. I guess it is his playing that gets the most attention, but there are vocal tracks as well. Curated by James Toth, who has recruited a squad of lesser known names, this works well as a primer for all, or most, those contributing, as much as it does an introduction, if unfamiliar, to Cockburn. And if you do know him, better still.

Imaginational Anthem vol. XIII : Songs of Bruce Cockburn opens with the instrumental “Foxglove,” here performed by Eli Winter. He plays expertly on paired electrics, one picking and one with a loose strum, with sparse electric bass thudding beneath the spiky and shiny notes that billow forth. Quite a contrast with the positive gallop, comparatively, of the acoustic original, a hazy-dazy reinterpretation that enchanted this listener.

That same sort of shimmering tone beckons in “Forty Years in the Wilderness,” with guitar and vocal from Jerry DeCicca. Pleasant enough, it becomes charming when a familiar baritone chimes in, not quite in unison, for the chorus; it belongs to Bill Callahan, perhaps the best known name here. Said charm is heightened by the distant promise of a synthesized backwash and some spare drum programming, neither taking away the focus from DeCicca’s shards of delicately cascading notes. Again, it is quite a jump from the original, if conveying a similar ambient warmth.

“Up on the Hillside” hails back all the way to 1971, ahead perhaps of Cockburn truly finding his own voice, a harp and guitar holler, somewhat Dylanesque. This version is little altered from the original, apart from the filter through a psychedelic sieve it opens with. Matthew “Doc” Dunn is the performer here, and even with some neat slide, once the opening kaleidoscope is jettisoned, it loses much the traction hitherto gained. And spare us, please, the whoops; they near throw the whole mood of the album off course.

A song from the same vintage, “Fall” fares a little better. If Cockburn’s iteration of this plaintive ballad is a muted joy, especially with the piano and late entry of a string section, the Powers Rolin Duo keep it stripped right back, bar the hint of a keyboard, and bring out the full early-Richard Thompson vibe to the song, making for a far bleaker take. No bad thing, in truth, just a different direction.

Time for XIII‘s highpoint to now restore and further bolster the core strength of the album, near enough to warrant the whole cost of the purchase. “Pacing the Cage” is one of Cockburn’s finest compositions, held together by guitar, double bass and vibraphone in the original. Bravely, Lou Turner eschews guitar entirely, replacing this by having marimba take the lead, playing the vibes part of the original. This is a masterstroke, when laid against her warm bed of a voice, and is the strongest vocal here. The electric bass parts (from Trevor Nikrant, who also provides some sympathetic percussion) are a veritable delight. A wonderful, wonderful version of a wonderful song.

I know little about Wet Tuna, other than to have looked quizzically at their name at some time past. Never been stimulated to follow through. Their contribution does not change that aspiration any, sending me the other way instead. In time-honored say-something-nice tradition, the guitar is pleasant, if out of place in the surrounding company. The almost bluebeat of “Waiting For a Miracle,” which offers one of Cockburn’s best vocals, is ditched in favor of some FX and processed voices that are, frankly, a mess. Waiting for the end, more like it. It makes the Jerry Garcia Band gospel-heavy version, from which the bass is lifted, sound positively beatific.

If a gospel feel is sought, bearing in mind Cockburn has a strong Christian faith and his songs often a deep spiritual dimension, Armory Schafer imbue “One Day I Walk,” a minor hit in Canada, 1971, with the full tabernacle and it is gorgeous, electric piano and faltering voice, with a second voice, a female harmony, and a squeeze pump organ coming through for the chorus. We’re back on track. Armory Schafer are the duo of Leah and James Toth, the same James Toth who put this set together. Perhaps the most Tompkins Square version of a song follows, Jody Nelson and “You Don’t Have To Play the Horses,” with chunky picked guitar and a fairly rudimentary vocal, where rudimentary is exactly the role required.

To close we get another highwater mark, as Kyle Hamlett Duo furnish the relative simplicity of “All the Diamonds” with some stunning pedal steel, that arches over Kyle Hamlett’s smooth vocal and steady metronome of picked guitar. Luke Schneider is the other part the duo and the steel man. It is glorious, confirming the worth and purpose of this record.

Yes, there are lows as well as highs to Imaginational Anthem vol. XIII : Songs of Bruce Cockburn, but when the opener and closer, together with a couple in the middle, are of the caliber they are, well, fair play, you can live with the rest. A good job well done.

Imaginational Anthem vol. XIII : Songs of Bruce Cockburn Tracklisting:
  1. Eli Winter – Foxglove
  2. Jerry David DeCicca, feat. Bill Callahan – 40 Years in the Wilderness
  3. Matthew ‘Doc’ Dunn – Up On the Hillside
  4. Powers Rolin Duo – Fall
  5. Lou Turner – Pacing the Cage
  6. Wet Tuna – Waiting for a Miracle
  7. Armory-Schafer – One Day I Walk
  8. Jody Nelson – You Don’t Have to Play the Horses
  9. Kyle Hamlett Duo feat. Luke Schneider – All the Diamonds (Feat. Luke Schneider)
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