I started to listen to this album on the day that Gordon Lightfoot died, so I’m hoping that there isn’t some kind of omen in that. Bruce Cockburn occupies a similar space to Gordon Lightfoot as a legendary Canadian singer-songwriter in the folk idiom. Bruce is approaching his 78th birthday but still has the impulse to keep writing, recording and performing. ‘O Sun O Moon’ is proof that the quality of his work hasn’t diminished. The twelve tracks on the album are all built around acoustic guitars, but manage to show tremendous musical and lyrical variety. Here are a couple of examples.

‘King of the Bolero’ is the story of an itinerant blues picker “pulling visceral sounds from a no-name guitar” who’s based loosely on a player who was on the local circuit during Bruce’s high school years. It opens with finger-picked guitar and accordion in a shuffling lounge jazz style, adds some trumpet, mandolin and dulcimer along the way before the chorus cuts in with a New Orleans horn section. It’s all a bit surreal and dreamlike. ‘O Sun by Day, O Moon by Night’ is actually based on a vivid dream that Bruce had about his journey to Heaven and has spoken verses over a jazzy background and full-on New Orleans funeral horns accentuating the chorus. Mortality’s a bit of theme towards the end of the album; the closing song ‘When You Arrive’ is about reaching the end of life, while the message of ‘When the Spirit Walks’ is that when the end comes, it doesn’t matter who you were, you’re now just another thread in the fabric of history. The ethereal harmonies and insistent refrain of ‘Colin Went Down to the Water’ tell the story of a friend who died while Bruce was in Maui on vacation last year.

Don’t get the wrong idea; the album isn’t all about death. The album’s opener, ‘On A Roll’ takes a lively look at the march of time and the fact that we can still keep creating if we’re still on a roll. Bruce’s humanity shines through on in ‘Us All’ with a guitar, strings and glockenspiel arrangement and a vocal that hints at Paul Buchanan of The Blue Nile and the album’s second song, ‘Orders’ moves into unusually political territory with references to people that we’re all expected to love, including ‘The pastor preaching shades of hate, the self-inflating head of state’; it’s powerful stuff. Then there’s the ecological warning in the apocalyptic ‘To Keep the World We Know’, co-written with Susan Aglukark who sings harmonies on the song; it’s a clear message about worldwide climate change that we can’t afford to ignore.

‘O Sun O Moon’ is the work of an accomplished writer and performer in his senior years who still has plenty of fire in his belly. The playing is superb throughout and Bruce’s lyrics are perfect examples of concise brevity, where less is more. There’s a perfect example in ‘When You Arrive’ where the scene is set by the couplet: “Breakfast was Mahler and coffee, dinner’s Lightning Hopkins and rye”; there’s so much meaning packed into those ten words. This is an album you need to hear.

If you want to catch him live in the UK Bruce is touring in August with dates at Oxford O2 Academy (24th), Shepherd’s Bush Empire (25th) and Greenbelt Festival (26th). I might even see you at one of those.

‘O Sun O Moon’ is out in the UK on Friday May 12th on True North Records (TND811/TND811V).

Here’s the video for the album’s opener, ‘On A Roll’:

Where do we start with this one? It’s not quite a first album, it’s the first album that isn’t self-released and it’s a journey by road, by rail and by water taking us from the point where Meredith learned to play clawhammer banjo from YouTube videos to playing support gigs with a Canadian folk legend last year; this odyssey hasn’t been a straightforward one. She set off with her banjo, hitchhiking between venues with a folk-punk band and booking gigs using traditional music and punk networks across the Americas and Europe. It was an interesting way of honing her craft while providing material for some of the songs featured on ‘Constellations’.

As a self-taught player of traditional Appalachian music, you would expect to hear some traditional influences on the album and you wouldn’t be disappointed. There’s a banjo instrumental ‘Needlecase Medley’ (accompanied by podorhythmie – you can google that one) and the traditional ballad ‘Soldier’s Joy’. Its incongruously uptempo jaunty feel emphasises the pathos of a soldier fighting off the pain of battlefield wounds with opiates and alcohol.

Of the eight originals, unsurprisingly, there’s an instrumental piece, ‘Brokenwing Bird’, which showcases Meredith’s banjo skills. It’s a tour de force with superb playing throughout, style and tempo changes including a rallentando ending to represent the bird fading away. Of the remaining songs, there’s a strong emphasis on travelling; ‘Constellations’ is a hitchhiker’s song about seeing the night sky with a lover, while ‘That Town’ references the town of Wawa in Northern Ontario where hitchhikers often get stranded. ‘Lighthouse County’ and ‘Mark Twain’ are both nautical songs, the latter referencing the pseudonym of Samuel Clements and its original nautical meaning. There are also references to the constellations throughout the song as well. And while we’re on the subject of literary references, ‘Starcrossed’ has a couple of Shakespearean references including the obvious ‘Romeo and Juliet’ one.

‘Constellations’ is a fascinating piece of work. Setting aside the banjo virtuosity, the arrangements are minimal, allowing the songs to impress without too much embellishment. Meredith’s voice is understated throughout and the songs are interlinked by various themes and styles, creating a sense of unity across the album. It took a few listens to get under the skin of this understated piece of work, but it was definitely worthwhile. And what about that Canadian folk legend I mentioned? Meredith has consciously avoided playing on the fact that she’s the daughter of Gordon Lightfoot, preferring to make it on her own merits but the time has come now to open up on that one.

‘Constellations’ is out now in Europe on True North Records (TND807).

Here’s the official video for the song ‘Constellations’:

2020 might be the worst year in the modern era for live music, but we’ve had some cracking albums released, particularly over the last few weeks. Ben Bedford’s “Portraits” is no exception; it’s a collection of twelve powerful songs spanning folk, country, tex-mex and rock styles that will pull your emotions in every direction before coming to a resolution with the album’s final song, “Goodbye Jack”, a rousing tribute to the hard-living author Jack London. Ben Bedford’s a storyteller with a great grasp of narrative and a knack of pulling out historical themes with contemporary relevance.

The songs on “Portraits” aren’t new, although they haven’t been released in Europe; the selection has been curated from Ben’s first three albums “Lincoln’s Man”, “Land of the Shadows” and “What We Lost”, spanning the period 2007 to 2012. The quality of the songs and the common narrative themes create an album that feels like the songs were all written specifically for this project. It works perfectly.

The album’s opening song, “Lincoln’s Man” is pretty representative of the album. It’s a strong narrative; the story of a man from the Confederacy who fought for the Union side in the American Civil War. It’s a long story, clocking in at over eight minutes, dealing with the universal themes of loyalty, family and conscience and contains echoes of the divisions visible in the USA today. The backing is stripped back to mainly acoustic guitar, banjo and occasional cymbal, which focusses the attention on the story and the wider context of the military detail; imagine the writing of Gordon Lightfoot and the delivery of Harry Chapin. This isn’t the only song exploring the military experience on the album; “Twenty One”, with its string band arrangement and harmonium, tells the story of an enlisted farmhand who can only see the destruction that is the inevitable consequence of the war.

Another couple of songs immediately suggest historical parallels and the way in which we refuse to learn lessons. “Migrant Mother” powerfully evokes Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath” set during the Great Depression and reminds us that economic migration at the low end of the wage scale is not a novelty, while the gently finger-picked “Land of the Shadows” retells the story of the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till for offending a white woman in a Mississippi store. His killers were acquitted; any of this sound familiar? These songs were written in 2007 and 2009 respectively but have an eerie resonance in 2020.

If this is beginning to sound a bit morbid and gloomy, let me point you in the direction of “Amelia”, a soaring celebration of the determination and courage needed to undertake Amelia Earhart’s triumphant 1928 transatlantic flight. The rapid acoustic finger-picking conveys the sense of motion as the plane slices through the air and the uplifting chorus highlights the achievement against the sexism which is still with us.

Ben Bedford comes from a long line of troubadours in the folk tradition, exploring eternal themes through old stories and new stories, and creating moving and thought-provoking songs linking the present with the past. This curated selection of songs from around ten years ago feels more relevant than ever in 2020.

“Portraits” is released in the UK on Cavalier Recordings (CR 255626) on Friday September 4th.