Cowboy Junkies

Date and Venue 22 June 2008, 8pm | The Centre in Vancouver for the Performing Arts

Musicians: Margo Timmins Vocals Michael Timmins guitar Peter Timmins drums Jeff Bird electric mandolin and harmonica Alan Anton bass

Reviewer John Jane

When Bill Frisell regrettably (yet understandably) suddenly had to withdraw from this year’s Vancouver International Jazz Festival, Cowboy Junkies’ noble gesture to perform an additional set went at least some way to compensate for the disappointment of missing out on the unique guitarist’s eagerly anticipated gig at The Centre.

The Junkies have come a long way since bursting onto the alternative roots scene with their seminal recording of The Trinity Sessions recorded with a single microphone at the Church of the Holy Trinity in downtown Toronto. Earlier this year, the band commemorated the album’s 20th anniversary by releasing a more deluxe package after going back to rework the same songs in the same building.

Vocalist Margo Timmins with her brothers Michael on lead guitar and Peter on drums, plus Jeff Bird on electric mandolin and harmonica and Alan Anton on bass guitar make up the band’s current line-up. And although the Junkies have expanded their career to include a more eclectic repertoire, they can hardly be described as jazz musicians. Even Margo Timmins, with tongue-in-cheek humour at the start of the concert, quipped about trying to sound more like a jazz band.

After a few technical difficulties that involved Michael Timmins’ guitar, the group opened with a slowed-down version of the Hank Williams composition, “I’m so lonesome, I could cry” from their Trinity Sessions album. Ms Timmins, now 44, seems to have lost none of the ethereal quality in her voice that is the band’s trademark.

The opener was followed by the lulling “Brand New World,” a song Timmins, now a mother, dedicated to all parents. Next, another cover, of Richie Havens modern protest song, “Handouts in the Rain,” with the arrangement being closer to the original.

Not all the songs selected for this concert’s programme were gut-wrenching and introspective - what Ms Timmins herself describes as “Songs of heartache and misery.” Michael Timmons sounded reminiscent of Robby Krieger on his feedback-laden lead guitar on the bluesy “Bread and Wine,” while Jeff Bird wailed away on harmonica on “Good Friday.”

Their very mellow cover of Lou Reed's "Sweet Jane” has become the definitive interpretation of this song; more powerfully poignant than the Velvet Underground original, it was once used for the soundtrack of the eighties television cop show, Miami Vice. But why did we have to wait for an encore request to hear it - when many patrons had already left the theatre?

Jazz purists may wonder how a mainstream band like Cowboy Junkies might have been included in a Jazz Festival – even one with as broad a spectrum as the VIJF. But the band’s niche is hard to define and certainly in terms of musicianship, they can hold their own with best.

© 2008 John Jane