The Cowboy Junkies Take a Walk on The Wild Side, Sunday, March 6th at The Egg
There ought to be a warning on all Cowboy Junkies albums: “Children, don’t let your parents listen to this.”
For more than 35 years, this Canadian band fronted by vocalist Margo Timmins and her brother and lead guitarist Michael have created eerie music that is unsettling in these times especially: the soundtrack to a world teetering on the edge.
“Well, you know, I mean I don’t think you can feel too deeply,” says Michael. “If you can truly capture somebody and have them recognize an emotion, whatever it is, or evoke something out of them, I think that puts people in touch with being human, and if more people can get in touch with being human, as they’re supposed to be, I think we have a better world.”
The Junkies’ latest album Songs of the Recollection drops March 25th, 19 days after their concert Sunday night, March 6th at The Egg. To say that this album is eclectic in its choice of covers is an understatement. From “David Bowie’s “Five Years” to Gram Parsons’ “Ooh, Las Vegas,” from The Rolling Stones” “No Expectations” to a recent Dylan song “I’ve Made Up My Mind To Give Myself To You.” But to call them covers is almost a misnomer. This Canadian legacy act takes them out of their original context into an ethereal and often scary place.
Most of these artists covered have an element of tragedy or imminent danger attached to them already, but The Junkies push them into uncharted territory. On “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” and “Love in Mind” by Neil Young, ominous instrumentation accents Margo’s trademark long-black-veil-in-a-graveyard imagery. In “No Expectations” by The Rolling Stones, Margo captures Mick’s somber side, a white privileged answer to blues’ dark side. Vic Chestnutt’s “Marathon” is mesmerizing like watching a black widow spider emerge from under a rock, knowing there are 100 more underneath the stone.
“I don’t think of them as covers,” explains Michael. “I think of them as our songs. Once it gets to the point where we truly inhabit them, and I’m proud of them and (do what we do with them), they become our songs. They’re our expression, and actually, that’s a really cool thing. That’s when you know you’ve really captured a song for yourself and hopefully in a way that’s affecting other people.”
The Trinity Sessions, The Cowboy Junkies’ first widely circulated release in 1988 was recorded in a rural Canadian church. The location is credited with contributing to the ambiance of the sound that would become their trademark, a kind of 19th century Dickensian Victorian reflective quality that is more pervasive than their acknowledged debt to Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground on “Sweet Jane.”
“It was recorded with one microphone and with four to eight musicians playing all together at one time,” says Michael. “It’s a beautiful sounding room, and very complimentary for the instrumentation we were using as well, but I think the basic sound of it is what grabbed people’s attention. All those things came together to create that sound. I think the sound of the record played a huge part in its success and it really captured people’s attention.”
Bass player Alan Anton, who known Michael since they were both in kindergarten seemed surprised and even amused at the fans who treat the chapel as hallowed ground when I interviewed him in 2004.
“There are people who do pilgrimages, hard-core fans who go there all the time. We were only there a day. So, who knows what stories went down the line, but apparently there are people who take you around and say what “they” did here. That’s kinda cool.”
White artists have been trying to emulate the catharsis of the African American blues experience for more than a century. The Cowboy Junkies don’t try to ignore their cultural differences, but rather take the music of artists like Robert Johnson and carry it like a backpack into their own milieu. It’s an amazing journey across cultures, but not for the weak of heart.
“Certainly, Whites Off The Earth Now (recorded before The Trinity Sessions) is a perfect example of that because it’s about as far away from Robert Johnson going through my view and life experiences as I can get. His music really affected us. It’s intense and it’s otherworldly and it brings us to another place so we didn’t recreate that.
“We didn’t want to try to recreate that, not that anyone can play like him, but we knew we would take that experience we had when we listen to him and spin it out with our own pain and our own vibe and our own experience and turn it into something else which came forth with that weird, ghostly world, right? It’s the world that would affect other people and what’s going on. We just make sure that it’s always honest and true to how we feel and how we interpret it.”
An evening with The Cowboy Junkies at The Egg in Albany on Sunday, March 6th. Tickets are $49.50.