High- and low-brow cultural goings-on in the Second City, brought to you by a roving microtechnoanthropologist

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Monday, October 30, 2006

Canadian Emo: A Chi-Town Interlude with the Cowboy Junkies

It may sound odd to say that I just "discovered" the Cowboy Junkies earlier this year. (No, this was not some kind of Og!Cave-induced cultural poverty—I'd heard of them, of course, I just hadn't discovered them.) It probably sounds odder to say that I discovered them in Outlaws of Country. What can I say? The denizens of the Old Town School of Folk Music may look like hippies, but we're Amurrican right down to our alarmingly broad definition of Outlaw.

So B had worked up an arrangement of "Misguided Angel" from The Trinity Session. I liked the song. I loved the album. It was recorded with minimal sound equipment in an old church. It'd be a mistake to call Margo Timmins' voice "ethereal"—it's too laden. And I suppose people who aren't me would be creeped out if I described it as "disembodied," as that usually goes along with "head" (and what's wrong with disembodied heads, I ask you). Whatever adjective you'd like to apply to her voice, that church was a venue made for it.

I believe that I enthused about the Cowboy Junkies coming to Old Town long ago. If you think that enthusiasm carried over into action, I think you're at the wrong LJ. The tickets were sold out before I was aware they were on sale, and there was sadness. And then, last week, I was volunteering at yet another teen open mic night. I had gotten there a bit early and M was bemoaning the fact that she was trying to sell her CJ tickets. I blinked, thinking that I couldn't possibly have heard right. I asked if she was serious, and soon the deal was done: She had her costs recouped and I had two tickets to the 10 PM show. And so we see that virtue, for once, is rewarded. It is worth noting that "virtue" is pretty broadly defined here: When the munchkins started stage diving during the last act, I thought, "Aw, man, don't do that. I'm not even close to finished knitting this row, dudes." You'll be relieved to know that someone else played the role of authority figure before I could leap in, Mom Look a-blazing.

I was so excited about the tickets that we very nearly showed up 24 hours early for the show (I don't know why I had the 27th in my head). As it stood, we did have to skip out a touch early on a lovely dinner with our OLD, MARRIED friends J & B (uh, not the "scotch"), and only just made it into our seats in time for the opening act, Finlayson & Maize, who also appear to be 40% of Skydiggers.

As M commented, the stage was as crowded as any I've ever seen, which is a little odd as I'm used to thinking of the Junkies as somewhat minimalist, thanks to Trinity Session. There were the usual wedges and other miscellaneous sound equipment, of course, but also a small, cloth-covered cafe table down center that held one of two vases of beautiful flowers, a tall stool next to this, and a rack containing guitar after guitar after guitar at stage right. Also, there seemed to be some kind of riot shield (the ZK's assessment, naturally)/sneeze guard (my assessment, just as naturally) in front of the drum kit, which was upstage left.

Finlayson/Maize came out to downstage left with a guitar, a trumpet on a stand, and little fanfare. It was rather like Opening Act by Byers and Randy Hickey, who'd both donned their best wrinkle-free Dockers and button-down shirts for the occasion. If that sounds like a criticism, I'd like to draw your attention to my future "All Jammie Pants, All the Time" presidential campaign.

They did about 45 minutes of low-key covers and original material. Finlayson did most of the work on guitar and Maize most of the lead vocals, although they traded off on the latter for a few songs and provided harmony for one another. The trumpet appeared in only one song, so you've got to admire the commitment to toting brass. In between songs, Maize kept up a minimalist patter that was suffused with incredibly dry, hilariously geeky wit. In listening to a bit of the Skydiggers, I'm not sure that their music alone would have moved me to a second listen, but having seen them perform, I'm inclined to smile a lot while listening, and therefore inclined to listen over and over again.

After a short intermission, the Cowboy Junkies took the stage to the tune of the entire crowd singing Happy Birthday to the drummer. Margo, naturally, was down center, complementing the flowers; Alan Anton, the world's most impassive bassist and one of the two non-Timmins in the band, was down left in a black suit and skinny tie; Pete TImmins, the birthday boy, was behind the riot shield up left; seated upstage right was Jeff Bird on "shaky things" and various mandolins; and downstage right was Michael Timmins, their primary songwriter, seated in front of his mighty army of guitars.

Our seats were at one of the tables at the back of the main floor. Normally I prefer these to the table-less seats closer to the stage, but we were at something of a disadvantage because Michael's back was to us, and he was blocking much of Jeff from our view. Thus, we were unable to see either of the two people who were most likely to be responsible for some of the more amazing nonvocal sounds of the evening.

They opened in appropriately eerie dark red light with "So Lonesome I Could Cry" off The Trinity Session, which is like the world's most ill-advised lullaby (in the best possible way). It's languid and lazy and calling. It coaxes you toward sleep and tucking you in for the night every loss you've ever experienced, every regret you've ever had. It's fantastic.

Funnily enough, just as she finished this song, Margo joked that it was so past her bed time. It certainly seemed as though she was a bit sleep deprived and punch drunk. That led to some Grandpa-Simpson-like moments when she'd launch into a long story about trying to buy pants (and I don't know anyone who would bore her audience with such things), then look astonished at the narrative situation in which she found herself as she had to introduce a completely unrelated song. Again, this isn't a complaint. It was quite charming, and anyway, Ray, if a woman that gorgeous with that voice wants to tell you long, rambling stories, you say "YES."

Much of the show seemed to emphasize songs from Early 21st Century Blues. I'm unsure whether this represents one of the projects that Margo described as having been recorded "for fun" or if it was promoted and has been a commercial failure, but she remarked several times that they were still striving for the 1000-copy sales mark. In any case, I was a fan of the individual songs for the most part ("December Skies" seems a little overt, for example, but I might feel differently in context), though it's possible that it might just be overwhelming as a whole.

Another highlight of the evening was Joni Mitchell's ("another depressed Canadian") "River." This was a highlight on its own merits, depression notwithstanding. But it was also a highlight courtesy of the (on-topic, this time) lead-up story and because hearing it, seeing it, was a like a lightning bolt between the eyes. Other than Joni, I think I've only ever heard the Indigo Girls' version, and I can't think of a cover that more completely scoops out the creamy emotional center of a song. Amy and Emily give harmony without compare, but man, where's the pain ladies? Where's the pain? Must be over there in the box with the ambiguity.

I've also got to give a shout out to "He Will Call You Baby," and "Cheap Is How I Feel" particularly Michael's guitar work on it juxatposed with Margo's vocals. There's nothing pleasant about either of these songs. They're songs that start from a low-down nagging itch. And everything that comes after is that desperate, self-destructive scratch that you just can't stop. At one point, the guitar was distorted, abrasive almost to the point of causing literal pain. Two thoughts popped into my head: Velvet Underground, unaccompanied by a verb, and "This is what domestic violence sounds like." It was brutal and overwhelming. And gratifying and cathartic.

And speaking of productive juxtapositions, it's hard to beat ending with U2's "One," then finally doing "Sweet Jane" for the encore. Of course, for me, "Sweet Jane" gave closure to my weird Velvet Underground moment. For fans who saw Cowboy Junkies earlier in the tour, I regret to inform you that we got all your closure. Apparently, they haven't played it at all this time out, no matter how many times the audience has clamored for it. Saturday, they let the birthday boy pick the encore. This is a rare treat, apparently, because they're generally too wise to let the drummer make too many decisions.

The whole show was a strange (yet pleasant) hyrbid. On the one hand, the mood was combination of very laid back, thanks to the combined energy of the venue, the crowd it draws, and the band. On the other, it was unusually raw and emotionally charged. Live music of any kind usually leaves me ramped up and excited; Saturday I felt like I'd just had a good, long cry and was ready for sweet, dreamless sleep. I guess that's appropriate for a show that starts with a cruel kind of lullaby.

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