Cowboy Junkies (Mass MoCA, 9/29/01)

Cowboy Junkies

by Seth Rogovoy

(NORTH ADAMS, Mass., September 30, 2001) – It’s hard to figure out the enduring appeal of the Cowboy Junkies, which by the evidence of a sold-out crowd at Mass MoCA on Saturday night has garnered a loyal, hardcore following in its 15 or so years of existence.

One of the best things you can say about the group is that it is consistent. Since first gaining a small degree of notoriety in the late-1980s, it has pretty much stuck to its guns. Other than its expanded repertoire of original songs, there was a not a whole huge difference between the show the group put on this past weekend and one they performed back in 1989 or so when they first played Northampton’s Iron Horse – which incidentally co-presented this show with MoCA, the first such collaborative effort between the two cultural venues.

The Cowboy Junkies pretty much adhere to the same basic approach, playing slow, downright languorous rock songs occasionally laced with country and soul accents in large part colored by lead vocalist Margo Timmins’s idiosyncratic vocals.

Though much of her guitarist/composer brother Michael Timmins’s surreal, neo-psychedelic poetry was lost in the purposeful, glorious blur of the group’s sound in concert, Margo Timmins communicated their essence through her achy, resigned voice, whose off-pitch notes were metaphors for the broken souls and hearts about which Michael Timmins so eloquently writes.

Even the songs’ relative lack of melodic content – made plainly evident by the few cover tunes the group played by other writers like Neil Young, Townes van Zant and Lou Reed, all of which were more melodic -- is part of the aesthetic strategy. This is not pop music so much as mood music, the sound of emotions rippling and breaking and crashing up against the hard shell of reality.

On a typical number the band, also including Peter Timmins on drums, Alan Anton on bass, Jeff Bird on harmonica and mandolin and Linford Detweiler on keyboards, laid down a soft bed of sound, a pillow-like groove over which Michael Timmins or Bird would scatter shards of distorted notes or riffs when Margo Timmins wasn’t floating above the quiet din.

At times the music recalled Indian classical music, when it relied on a drone or several drone notes or chords, or a circular bass figure by Anton, atop which Michael Timmins or Bird would play raga-like figures. Drummer Peter Timmins rarely supplied a rock ‘n’ roll backbeat, using his trap kit more for washes of color and dynamics than for linear syncopation.

There were exceptions to the rule. Hidden deep in “I Don’t Like Goodbyes” was a Stax/Volt r&b arrangement, and Margo Timmins opened wide her emotional floodgates to do a veritable Anthony Newley-by-way-of-David Bowie. And the country-waltz of “Where Are You Tonight?” hinted at Band-like chamber-rock, with some barrelhouse piano by Detweiler and stark imagery of a jaded landscape.

But for the most part, the group stuck to its formula, which Margo Timmins acknowledged by way of dismissal. “We’re not depressed,” she explained, “we’re just Canadian.”

On the last show of the current tour, the band had a lot of fun at the expense of opening act Tim Easton. The solo singer-songwriter’s warm-up set was plagued by practical jokes played on him by members of the Cowboy Junkies, who apparently switched the cover plates of all his harmonicas so an “A” was really a “C” and a “D” was really an “E” and so on. The group also joined Easton on stage to help him sing his finale, at which point they bombarded him in silly string.

In a measure of proactive self-defense, the Cowboy Junkies fended off retaliation by Easton by having their crew catch him and bind him to a chair with ropes and handcuffs. The crew carried him out on stage for the Cowboy Junkies set-closing rendition of Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane,” where all he could do was sit and look humiliated.

As with most Mass MoCA shows, the production itself was technically marvelous, with a stage that was well laid out, great lighting and sound, and distinctive backdrops, all of which added just the right amount of theatricality to a group that has nary a theatrical bone in its collective body.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on October 2, 2001. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2001. All rights reserved.]

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