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Cowboy Junkies One for the Ages

Another year on the road for the Cowboy Junkies

The two-concert all-star extravaganza scheduled at the Hollywood Bowl to mark Willie Nelson’s 90th birthday in late April begs the question: How do music stars cope with birthdays on the road?

Case in point – the 62nd birthday of Margo Timmins, the star lead vocalist of the Cowboy Junkies. It occurred on January 27 at Auckland’s Bruce Mason Theatre on the opening night of the Canadian group’s 10-gig tour of New Zealand and Australia.

Like most bands in a post-pandemic world, the tour has been a long time in the making. It was first scheduled for 2019 but had to be cancelled twice due to COVID.

“It’s taken four years to get here. When it was first planned … well that was when I was much younger,” Margo said when greeting fans. Despite the odd “Happy Birthday” shout-out from die-hard fans, this was the closest she got in the first hour to actually mentioning her special day of aging.

It was only in the second half of the show that Margo confronted the elephant on stage. “You may have gathered from what I said about being younger when this trip was all planned,” she said. “Well, back then I was 58 and today is my 62nd birthday” (Much applause). “And the rain! I sure won’t forget this day,” she quipped, referring to an unprecedented storm which hit the city and forced the other big music event of the day – superstar Elton John’s outdoor concert – to be cancelled across town.

Later a cake and glowing candles entered stage right. She blew them out as sections of the doting audience erupted into various versions of “Happy Birthday.”

When it comes to family groups in Americana music, there are few survivors like the Cowboy Junkies. The Timmins siblings Margo, Michael and Peter - together with co-founder Alan Anton and long-touring bandmate Jeff Bird – have been on the road for nearly four decades. Despite being grounded by the pandemic, the Cowboy Junkies had been busy in the studio, releasing three new albums during the lockdown, with Margo referencing two – All That Reckoning and the impressive 2022 covers compilation Songs of the Recollection.

As in their European tour last year, the Cowboy Junkies wasted little time showcasing their latest covers release with David Bowie’s “Five Years” opening the show and a stunning rendition of “No Expectations” at number three. She introduced the Rolling Stones’ classic with her own lost expectations: “When I was young (teenager) in the 1970’s I had my heart set on marrying one of the Stones, anyone would do!”

Margo’s vocals, with a seemingly in-built re-verb, are as mesmerizing as they have ever been. In a hushed tone, she drawls:

Take me to the station

And put me on the train

I’ve got no expectations

To pass through here again

The Cowboy Junkies have been long-time admirers of Neil Young. “Neil Young songs should be written into the constitution,” joked Margo. And then from Songs of Recollection came Young’s “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” which the band interpret at their eclectic best, thanks somewhat to “little brother” Peter Timmins on drums.

The first half of the show ended with the show-stopping original “Blue Moon Revisited (Song for Elvis)” from their ground-breaking 1988 album The Trinity Session. Time stands still as Margo delivers a version just as soothing as she did 35 years ago.

There was an air of a jamming session during the second spell onstage, with all band members, apart from bassist Alan Anton, sitting as they delivered laid-back versions of two Michael Timmins’ compositions, “A Common Disaster” – with a short pro-log by Margo on the rain outside – and “Cause Cheap Is How I feel.” Then it was time to be really reflective with prolonged treatment of the traditional spiritual “Working On A Building,” another from The Trinity Session.

As in most of their sets, there was an acoustic time-out, with only Michael Timmins and multi-instrumentalist Bird onstage with Margo. And here it was time to honour another old hero of the band, Townes Van Zandt. “Gee Townes wrote some really sad, sad songs and here’s one,” said Margo before launching into the most beautiful rendition of “Rake.”

And time was like water but I was the sea

I wouldn’t have notice it passin’

Except for the turnin’ of night into day

And the turnin’ of day into cursin’

When the full band returned there was time for two other favourites, the Waylon Jennings “Dreaming My Dreams With You” and Michael’s haunting “Good Friday.”

Then – blowing-out-of-candles permitted – it was time to finish with their signature song, “Misguided Angel,” a Margo/Michael composition off The Trinity Session. It is another tailor-made for Margo’s hushed vocals.

Soul like Lucifer

Black and cold like a piece of lead

Misguided Angel, love you ‘til I’m dead

The dedicated devotees demanded an encore and got one, with two songs. First was the acoustic treatment of “Powderfinger,” a sad song Margo - ably assisted by Bird’s harmonica - has made her own. Then it was a full-band finale with “Walking After Midnight.”

One minute it is a haunting Neil Young song, the next a jazz-fuelled treatment of a Patsy Cline classic. Is there nothing this birthday girl and her Cowboy Junkies cannot do?

Paul Cutler

Editor Crossroads – Americana Music Appreciation


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