Cowboy Junkies brought their quaaludic sound to Portland on Wednesday at Revolution Hall playing a 22 song set to a very gracious, sold out crowd.
It was a bit melancholic, yet totally relaxing, part coffee house entertainment with a splash of local bar band favorite flavor while maintaining an atmosphere of polished excellence.
In full disclosure, I’d heard of Cowboy Junkies but did not know their music so when searching for their popular songs of course “Sweet Jane” pops up. Oh, that’s Cowboy Junkies. Wait, that’s Cowboy Junkies? So now you know what happens when a friend offers you a ticket (free of charge) to see a band you’ve heard of but never actually listened to and the music in no way reflects the band’s name.
At home education of a new or little listened to bands generally includes absorbing a number of songs and finding more about the members. Admittedly, it was a bit hard to get into Cowboy Junkies because they’re not a band you listen to at work or in the car on the way home. Instead, this Canadian outfit requires a quiet room and some headphones as you lay back and soak it all in. But! No matter where you find the time to listen it’s hard not to notice Margo Timmins vocals.
But live? A totally different experience.
Cowboy Junkies opened with “Southern Rain” and a trance fell over the place. I was immediately taken by this voice. If ears included hearing taste buds imagine a super moist, deeply, rich succulent dark chocolate cake passing through your auditory canal. Only you want more and never get full.
Step aside Adele, it’s been done now for more than 30 years.
Yes, Cowboys Junkies started in 1985 working their way through covers and finally original material all written by band co-founder and lead guitarist Michael Timmins, Margo’s brother. Brother Peter Timmins plays the drums and co-founder Alan Anton takes up bass. They also brought along Jeff Bird who helped out on harmonica, steel guitar and somehow turned a mandolin into a hard rocking electric beast ripping off some scorching chords and an amazing solo on “Just Want to See” and “Sing Me a Song” which sounded nothing like what this small, normally bluegrass style string instrument exudes.
Michael remained seated the whole evening facing his sister, often hunched over his guitar as he provided lead duties while looking more like he was simply practicing scales or just fooling around at home to see what sticks. Margo sipped on often-replenished hot tea throughout the show, a bouquet of flowers to her right, her red hair now gray (though she looked much like a platinum blond beauty from my vantage point) and she shined the entire evening, but truly magical on “Cheap is How I feel” “Sing Me a Song” and “Good Friday.”
Cowboy Junkies played a 50 minute opening set consisting of tracks off their 2015 release Notes Falling Slow a remastered compilation of the albums Open, One Soul Now and At the End of Paths Taken (and some unreleased material) produced earlier this century the band couldn’t remember recording because they were in the midst of also having children and handling their aging parents. Candidly, Margo said “what we’re trying to do is sell CDs” regarding the band’s current tour.
The crop of songs played from Notes Falling Slow included the very cool “My Little Basquiat” with an up tempo groove and the hard-hitting and overly emotional “Spiral Down” about the Timmins’ father. How apropos. While waiting for the show to start my friend and I discussed how our own dads “laid it all on paper/instructions of what to do” for us. It’s a heart-string pulling moment especially for those who have experienced the loss of a parent or have had “the talk” about what to do when “…it all begins or continues to/Spiral down.”
Additionally, the Cowboys played three new songs from a forthcoming album before taking a 25 minute intermission: the pensive “Mountain Stream, “When We Arrive” which unfortunately Margo’s vocal’s drowned a bit from the bass and drums and the already mentioned but fantastic “Sing Me a Song.”
The longer second half of the show (about 90 minutes) consisted of older material including a three song acoustic set as (Pete and Anton left the stage) that featured another new song “Shining Teeth,” the Vic Chestnutt cover “Supernatural” and the title track to their 1992 effort Black Eyed Man. The full band returned for one of Margo’s favorite songs to sing “Bea’s Song” off 1996’s Lay It Down and you can see why. So smooth.
Finally, “Sweet Jane” which got bested by “Good Friday” and the second half closed. They encored with “Blue Moon Revisted (Song for Elvis)” and ended the evening with David Bowie’s “Five Years” a song the band just started playing live and which Margo described as “one of the best songs ever written.”
Cowboys Junkies isn’t for everybody. Mostly slow tempo, pretty deep lyrics too and as Margo said you must like sad songs if you’re attending one of their concerts. Yet, no one left unhappy.