Melody Maker Magazine

Grievous Angel

March 18, 1989

By Allan Jones

COWBOY JUNKIES

PINE STREET THEATRE, PORTLAND
WEST WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY

“THE ghost of electricity howls in the bones of this face…”

IT does too! Maybe it’s just jet-lag, but Dylan’s incandescent line from “Visions Of Johanna” comes back to me in a rush as soon as I see Margo Timmins on stage with Cowboy Junkies at Portland’s Pine Street Theatre.

The group are gathered around her in a semi-circle most of them seated, hunched over their instruments in quiet concentration. Candles burn low around and between them. The mood is sepulchral. no one moves, not even the audience. They are stunned in rapture. Time stands still. Margo is at the center of this, wraith-like, place, not really here at all. Her voice reaches us from beyond anything we already know, lightning on glass, a melting illumination. Cowboy Junkies are a haunting, and this is some of the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard.

Some of you might think you’ll have a problem with Cowboy Junkies because you’ve heard they’re a country group. But this is only one of the directions they’re coming in. Cowboy Junkies are busy re-inventing everything they’ve heard, which is a lot. Listen to the extraordinary “The Trinity Session” LP and you’ll hear a new kind of rock’n’roll poetry.

Live, they transcend even the record’s luminous grace. The volume is conversational. The instrumental focus shifts continuously. Melodic phrases are constantly handed around, starting usually by Michael Timmins’ guitar, picked up by Jaro Czwerwinec’s accordion, passed on to Kim Deschamps’ pedal steel, delicately embroidered by Jeff Bird’s fiddle, mandolin and harmonica. This kind of intrepid musical interplay isn’t something that can be learned or rehearsed, it has to be in the bones. And the effect of this virtuosity is mesmerizing.

The sense of eternal calm, the profound vulnerability they bring to pieces like Robert Johnson’s frightening “Me And The Devil”, their own “Blue Moon Revisited (Song For Elvis)” and, of course, their celebrated version of Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane”, is often uncannily reminiscent of The Velvet Underground and the dream-like stasis of, say, “Sunday Morning”, or the mesmeric spin of something like “All Tomorrow’s Parties”.

I am also reminded of the small group intimacies of Tim Buckley’s “Blue Afternoon” and “Lorca:, particularly on new group originals like the aching “Cos Cheap Is How I Feel”, “Escape is So Easy” and the breathtaking “The Sun Comes Up, It’s Tuesday Morning”. Elsewhere, the forlong, desolate romance of “200 More Miles” and “To Love Is To Bury” evokes the legend of Gram Parsons, and we could be listening to “Grevious Angel” or “Sleepless Nights”. Sometimes, all these elements come together at once. At West Washington University, Cowboy Junkies resurrect the traditional “Working On A Building”. It becomes an hallucination, and sounds like John Cale’s joined Parson’s Fallen Angels for a version of The Stooges’ unholy mantra, “We Will Fall”.

Cowboy Junkies are full of surprises. In Portland, I am still recovering from the shock of what they do to Neil Young’s “Powderfinger” when they turn the Stones’ “Dead Flowers” into a kind of derelict hymn. Even this is surpassed, however, by the becalmed, bleached beauty of “Misguided Angel”, where voices and instruments combine in the creation of new musical constellations.

It’s at moments like this that I believe my own enthusiasm, convinced again that Cowboy Junkies are the most happening band anywhere right now. Miracles have never seemed so real.

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