They tugged us through a long, dark tunnel, but lit from time to time with love or hope, and showed us the way.
Cowboy Junkies singer Margo Timmins explained their roadmap Sunday at The Egg. She said she and her siblings (guitarist and main writer Michael and drummer Pete) would mourn their mother in songs from “Ghosts” (2020). “We’re a cover band,” she proclaimed, announcing they’d play selections from “Songs of the Recollection” – then would play “the songs you want to hear.”
So, somber stuff, surprises, then favorites – starting with the resurrection saga “Good Friday,” the BIG hope, right out of the box. Soft at the start, held in a somber groove with Jeff Bird’s harmonica in the creases, Margo’s voice lifted in power to belt in defiance. Next, she confessed confusion about life and death in the menacing drone of “I Don’t Get It,” again stretched by Bird’s harmonica.
Around him, and Margo, quietly rose the Canadian chamber-rock band’s understated strength: Alan Anton’s bass so sly and sparse and subtle he made Phil Lesh sound like Jaco, bridging Pete Timmins’s Ringo-simple beats with Michael Timmins’ wry rhythm guitar.
Margo then lightened the mood, sort of, noting, “Well, we’re back” but hedging her bet by noting nobody knows for how long – just as nobody knows the secrets of life and death framed in “I Don’t Get It.”
“Sing Me a Song” acknowledged the possibility of joy, and summoned it, rocking under a wailing Bird electric mandolin solo.
Staking Margo’s cover-band claim, they slow-waltzed Waylon Jennings’s “Dreaming My Dreams With You,” proclaiming “I’d rather believe in love,” despite heartache.
Then things turned darker still; mourning their mother in the lament “Desire Lines” with an eloquent Bird lap slide solo, but then they underlined its stated intent to “celebrate life and the people we love” in a joined run through “Breathing” into “You Don’t Get to Do It Again” with its understated direction to do our best, all of it, now.
This suite surveyed loss as inevitable but somehow uplifting, in part through the sheer beauty of their sound. In “Desire Lines,” Anton’s bass probed through space like a lighthouse scanning a roiling sea, and it guided the upshift into “Breathing,” pushing the beat under Bird’s electric mandolin.
Bird’s lap slide linked beautifully with Michael’s guitar in the Rolling Stones’ slow “No Expectations,” Margo turning on her stool to watch Bird etch his solo.
Cover songs took over the second set, Neil Young’s consoling classic “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” launching a full-band run that closed with an easy shuffle through Lightning Hopkins’s blues “Shining Moon.” In between, Michael uncorked a wild wah-wah guitar solo in “My Little Basquiat,” then Bird matched his fire in “Nose Before Ear,” going far outside in an electric mandolin break that brought the first applause all night for a solo. In “Shining Moon,” Bird slipped hot harmonica runs around Margo’s skat singing.
Young’s violent “Powderfinger” opened a three-song acoustic set as Pete and Anton left the stage to Margo’s voice, Michael’s guitar and Bird’s acoustic mandolin. Margo said she’d been too young to feel fully the theme of Townes Van Zandt’s “Rake;” it’s about aging; but the now-silver-haired singer got all of this somber song on Sunday. Bird switched to harmonica in “S and their own “Something More Besides You,” another slow one – before Pete and Anton rejoined the trio for the set-closing sequence.
In “Bea’s Song,” they fatalistically warned “You can always see it coming but you can never stop it;” but then they served up their sweetest, most serene tune – a cover of Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane.” It started in glorious guitar noise – and Michael later soloed here, big and beefy – that framed Margo’s echoey wordless vocal. Then the lyrics took shape and the thing rocked and soared as Bird’s electric mandolin chimes strong.
Their own serene “Misguided Angel” closed the set, and they harvested the applause quickly, returning efficiently for Patsy Cline’s “Walkin’ After Midnight” – written by Alan Block and Donn Hecht, but Patsy’s until Cowboy Junkies borrowed it for a slowed down, sparse rendition full of understated soul.
They rubbed the same minimalist mojo on David Bowie’s “Five Years” with a strong Margo vocal and the same strong blend of Michael’s electric guitar with Bird’s electric mandolin that carried most songs.
Despite its often-somber feel, the music seemed to lift Margo’s mood over the two set show that entranced the three-quarters-full Swyer Theatre with full-on Cowboy Junkies hypnosis. While her movements seemed contained and casual, they helped sell the songs. The compact band’s sound soothed or seethed and their lyrics faced down fickle fate and death itself. They communicated powerfully as their restraint urged a hard-earned kind of serenity. Their elegance reached out, and drew us in.
A few songs seemed to end before they finished, notably “My Little Basquiat,” leaving me wanting more. When the band stretched a song with instrumental breaks, bursting a tune’s customary tasteful containment felt exhilarating. When Margo pushed her voice from a confiding murmur to defiant yell, when the guitars burst from mellow strums to amped howls, and when the beat blasted into punk-rock romps, Cowboy Junkies brought a thrilling sort of liberation, of lift-off.
By the end, they expressed deep gratitude for the crowd’s respectful listening. In fact a Facebook post by the band said, after the show, “The best night of the tour, no doubt. Thank you Albany. You helped us remember what this is all about.”
I Don’t Get It
Sing Me a Song
Dreaming My Dreams with You (Waylon Jennings)
(You Don’t Get to) Do It Again
No Expectations (Rolling Stones)
Don’t Let It Bring You Down (Neil Young)
My Little Basquiat
Nose Before Ear
Shining Moon (Lightning Hopkins)
Powderfinger (Neil Young)
Rake (Townes Van Zandt)
Something More Besides You
Sweet Jane (Velvet Underground)
Walking After Midnight (Patsy Cline)
EXTRA, EXTRA, READ ALL ABOUT IT
AN INTERVIEW, RECALLED
Originally published as Jukebox for Friday, July 25, 2008 in the Daily Gazette¶
Space – the size and shape of space – has always shaped the Cowboy Junkies’ spectral sound, with space, for thought, between the notes.¶
Their cramped Toronto garage/rehearsal space encouraged them to play quietly, as did neighbors and police. Recording “The Trinity Session” in the acoustically warm space of Toronto’s Trinity Church expanded their sound to star-size in 1987, paradoxically allowing them to play in such grungy, loud spaces as Albany’s QE2. Returning to Trinity Church 20 years after their landmark album, they recently re-recorded its songs and filmed the performances for the DVD that accompanies the new “Trinity Revisited,” playing in a circular space that encloses the viewer. On Saturday, they will play in a very different space: Albany’s vast Empire State Plaza at the day-long, free-admission Plaza MusicFest.¶
“We’ll be playing some of the Trinity songs for sure,” predicted Cowboy Junkies’ guitarist and main songwriter Michael Timmins last week by phone from Toronto. The band has played those songs occasionally ever since, yet had forgotten how they sounded in the church until they returned. “Literally from the first couple of notes playing in there, it all came flooding back,” he said. “It’s an inspiring, inspiring sound,” he said, perfect to celebrate the original.¶
“We decided to invite some friends and guests (Ryan Adams, Natalie Merchant and Vic Chesnutt) and re-approach those songs 20 years later and see what energy the guests bring.” They invited artists they admired and who admired their original “Trinity Session” album. They had never met Adams, for example, but knew from interviews that he saw the album as crucial to his coming of age as a musician. Merchant was an old friend and inspiration. “When we were just starting out, (Merchant’s band) 10,000 Maniacs would come through Toronto quite a bit and we used to go see them all the time. (His singing sister) Margo would really study Natalie,” said Timmins. Touring at times with Chesnutt they found that “Vic has such a unique style and way of approaching music, so he was an obvious choice.”¶
But would it work, would the pieces fit? “We admired their work and we knew that they had respect for what we did,” Timmins said. “But we didn’t know how the three of them would fit in individually or as a group.” Trusting their mutual admiration and their experience, they barely rehearsed one night then recorded the next. “We had to push them a bit,” Timmins recalled: “We want you to step up and put a bit more of your personality in there.” He said, “They were almost too deferential at times but once we got them singing and performing, then it flowed really, really naturally and easily.”¶
Some of that natural ease stems from the expertise of film-producers Francois and Pierre Lamoureux. “They’re musicians, too; so they understood the music,” Timmins said. “They were very aware of making sure the cameras were not part of the music. They formed us in a circle and they kept all the cameras on the outside.” This draws the viewer inside that circle, surrounded by the band. You can see how the songs formed from shared intuitive knowledge and how the players listen to, enjoy, acknowledge and play off each other. “It all comes down to listening to the other musicians and how they’re expressing themselves and trying to complement that or feel your way into it,” said Timmins; neatly describing how the band formed and found its sound.¶
Inspired by Neil Young’s proto-punk noise, then by the sparseness of bluesmen Lightin’ Hopkins and John Lee Hooker, guitarist Timmins and bassist Alan Anton, with a similarly skeletal approach, had played together in bands since 1979, learning together. “For (drummer and brother) Peter (Timmins) and (singer and sister) Margo (Timmins), this is their first band,” said Michael Timmins. “So they developed their style around us, and the four of us in many ways really developed as a unit; that’s really and truly how we learned our instruments.” Apart from police interruptions in their rehearsal space, their quietness came from Margo. “She felt more comfortable with a quieter approach to her voice and in order for us to hear her and go with her voice, that influenced us,” said Timmins. Their sparseness came from bluesmen such as Hopkins and Hooker “who use very few notes,” as he said. “Every note they choose has personality to it.”¶
The musical personality that the original “Trinity Session” introduced to the world in 1988 is often quiet, slow and sparse, but it allowed them to give up their dayjobs (Timmins used the band’s van for courier runs) to tour rock clubs, including QE2. “That was a jam, jam-packed show,” said Timmins. “After ‘Trinity’ exploded, that was one of our first major club dates in the states where it was absolutely insanely packed.”¶
Empire State Plaza should be packed on Saturday, too, for the five-act free Plaza Music Fest, near the cozy Egg where Cowboy Junkies played their most recent local show several years ago. Some outdoor shows can feel like a Toronto church, but Timmins knows that most don’t. “Sometimes those shows are very beautiful,” he mused. “If it’s a nice night and people are sitting there quietly and they’re there to listen to music, then you can cast a certain spell.” However, he realistically acknowledged, “If it’s a certain type of crowd, we might not try and cast a spell.” He said, “We might just kind of rock out and have fun. We can push our music in a lot of different directions; there’s a lot of stuff in our repertoire that, if we need to rock out, we can rock out. We just feel the evening out.”¶