I was treated to probably one of the most intimate shows I’ve ever seen in a larger venue on Saturday night (May 26th, 2018). You wouldn’t even think you were in Corona Theatre! There were fold-out chairs where people would usually be standing and assigned seating in the balcony. I’m used to a clusterfuck of people pushing to get to the front of the stage or to buy overpriced beer. Everything was so mellow and well-mannered. Even more shocking about all of this was that I was seeing Cowboy Junkies, who are pretty much Canadian royalty. To be fair, most of their songs are brooding folk tunes that never fully rock out, which doesn’t lend itself to hoots and hollers and obnoxious behavior. Still, they’ve been around since the ’80s and their songs haven’t aged one bit. They definitely deserved a much bigger showing.
Despite the fact these guys (and gal) are Montreal born, I haven’t heard much of their music. I realize that in some circles this is straight up blasphemy! I often frequent Indigo Book Store in Montreal, and never even noticed their name on the wall right next to author Elizabeth Smart! I am ashamed of such ignorance because their dark brand of folk-rock is right up my alley. I’m actually surprised that it had no influence on the kind of music that I like to make. What’s most surprising though is how they kept my attention for the whole show. No matter how outstanding the performers, it’s hard to captivate an audience for two-and-a-half hours if they don’t know your music. This was hardly the case. Cowboy Junkies hardly moved onstage and looked like they were playing in someone’s living room, yet I couldn’t look away.
One could argue that they might have been too “quiet.” Lead singer Margo Timmins barely spoke above a whisper the whole night, which at one point early on prompted a few audience members to yell, “Speak up!” Considering that she had a tea by her side, she was either fighting a cold or trying to conserve her voice for the show’s entirety. I strongly believe it was the latter because her vocal range was extraordinary and her wit and humor during breaks were in fine form. She told one particular story about how her songwriting style and personal life often conflict which had the audience in stitches. Her son had been brought to the principal’s office because he had been singing the line “I’m sick of the blood and I’m sick of the bleeding” from their song “Fairytale”. When she arrived at school, the principal judged Timmins for exposing her son to such inappropriate material, not knowing that she had written the song!
Despite a fifteen-minute intermission, the atmosphere never diminished. By the last four songs of the night, there were no more audience altercations as everyone just sat motionless in utter silence. This can often be misconstrued as boredom, but as one of the crowd, I can safely say we were just speechless. Even if you don’t know the lyrics, you know that the band and Margo Timmins are telling you an important story, so you should shut up and listen. Ironically, this was most true with their cover of The Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane”. Michael Timmins and Alan Alton teased and distorted the iconic riff for over three minutes before even letting Margo utter a single word. As they vamped with the help of the ever-subtle drumming of Peter Timmins it became more and more clear that we were all in for an epic that conveyed more all while explicitly saying less. What’s outstanding is that Margo didn’t sing all that much, the first two verses of the original were completely cut out, yet her and the band managed to reach profound levels of heartache, loss, and loneliness that the source material never came close to touching.
The night was finished off with the Neil Young classic “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” and the band’s own epic blues closer “Walking After Midnight” from their magnum opus The Trinity Session. There were no cannons, confetti, or ten-minute guitar solos, just well-written songs being performed with utmost sincerity. It was the most powerful ending we could have asked for. It’s rare that you go to a concert, sit, and just let the music soak in, but that’s exactly what Cowboy Junkies offered. In that way, it was the most thrilling show I’ve seen this year. Like a long late-night conversation with a close friend, it stayed with me long after the night had ended.
Written by Shawn Thicke
Photography by Danny Donovan
*edited by Mike Milito