ROLLING STONE MAGAZINE
It wasn’t exactly a high-energy night of music. The crowd that filled this venerable old concert hall remained in their cushioned seats all evening. Except when they clapped along to one of John Prine’s tunes, you could have heard a pin drop during quiet spots in the performances. Indeed, the sound of a dropping pin might have been louder than Cowboy Junkies chanteuse Margo Timmins’s barely audible patter between songs. Yet this classy double bill offered things far more sublime than decibels: mesmerizing musical atmospheres from Cowboy Junkies and wry, honest and uncut folk minstrelsy from Prine.
Cowboy Junkies came on first, unassumingly taking their places onstage – towards the back of the stage, that is, leaving space between themselves and the audience. Guitarist-songwriter Michael Timmins actually sat in a chair, avoiding the limelight. Sister Margo stood motionless, arms folded or hands on hips, intently focusing on maintaining inflection and control of her seductive vocals. Another Timmins sibling, Peter, took a similarly restrained approach to his drums, finessing them to a delicately accented sizzle. Alan Anton’s wandering, melodic bass lines further rarefied the Junkies’ cerebral music. The group was joined onstage by three auxiliary musicians, all of whom contributed parts to Black Eyed Man, the Junkies’ latest recording.
The amazing thing about Cowboy Junkies in concert is how seven people can make so little noise. The delicate interplay of complementary elements serves to frame the cool miracle of Margo Timmins’s voice. It is an instrument in its own right: breathy, limpid and pure, like a flute. Part of the group’s peculiar appeal lies in its self-containment; what they’re holding back piques the curiosity as much as what they’re letting on. In Margo’s case, she only occasionally hints at the power she’s capable of, for the most part sticking to a crystalline whisper. Still, for all the restraint that’s been such a hallmark since The Trinity Session, Cowboy Junkies are coming out of their shells. Black Eyed Man displays more animated narratives and varied instrumentation than its predecessors, and with the additional players onstage the songs took on a heightened presence.
The show opened (as does the album) with “Southern Rain” and “Oregon Hill”, whose easy rolling rhythms – one bearing a light rock & roll accent, the other a marginally bluesy pulse – set the low-key but involving agenda. Margo’s legato singing and the clean, economical ensemble playing on “Black Eyed Man” epitomized the group’s trancelike quality. Ken Myhr’s versatile lead guitar built on Michael’s skeletal chording, adding stinging counterpoint to the scarifying narrative of “Murder, Tonight, In the Trailer Park” and a nuanced slide solo to “’Cause Cheap Is How I Feel.” Jeff Bird’s harmonica underscored the lonesome, forlorn mood of roaming blues like “Lost My Driving Wheel”, a hauntingly intense song written by fellow Canadian David Wiffen.
John Prine came out to duet with Margo on “If You Were the Woman and I Was the Man”, and Spencer Evans added a lilting clarinet solo that gave the song a timeless, vintage quality. Prine’s charmingly gruff voice contrasted with Timmins’s ethereal siren call like fire and ice. She proved she was human by stepping on one of his lines. (“I can’t believe I just cut off John Prine”, she winced when the song was over. “Oh, dear!”) The group re-created the cathedral-like calm of The Trinity Session for “Misguided Angel” and wrapped up the show with an encore of “Sweet Jane” that rose to a gentle simmer. An emboldened Margo actually ventured toward the front of the stage, where a fan handed her a present she had absolutely no idea what to do with, which visibly flustered her. It is this combination of eloquence and bashfulness, mystery and charm that makes Cowboy Junkies such a pleasure to follow.
John Prine was a little saltier and more down to earth, especially when he dug into his archives of droll folk novelties. Like Cowboy Junkies, though, Prine works to say more with less. He had a three-man band with him that shuffled capably from instrument to instrument – “It looks like a music store up here,: he quipped at one point – but no drummer and both acts were more allusive of rock & roll than directly embracing it with a big, rambunctious beat. Prine has lately written some of the most honest and focused songs of his career, and his celebrated new album, The Missing Years, provided a wellspring of material that formed the core of his set.
“Picture Show” was an early highlight, featuring a bopping accordion, twangy guitar solo and Prine’s jaunty singing in a colorful tribute to the celluloid visions of James Dean, “a young man form a small town/With a very large imagination.” The openhearted “You Got Gold” elicited a funny story about landing in jail with co-writer Keith Sykes after celebrating a little too boisterously the fact that they’d written such a good song. In a similarly unguarded vein, Prine prefaced the grudgingly charitable “All the Best” with a real-life story about a Christmastime divorce; to console himself, he bought an electric train and nailed it to the dining-room table.
Prine’s voice has been ground to a fine-grained, sandpapery rasp that is nonetheless expressive and melodic, like Dylan with the ability to hit notes. His particular view ois that of a worldly-wise sort who has seen enough things go awry that in his wizened middle age he’s able to approach life with a bemused but by no means cynical chuckle. His likeable curmudgeon’s persona gave songs like “The Sins of Memphisto” and “It’s a Big Old Goofy World” their nimble wit, and the romping, Band-like gait of his musicians – pumping and picking everything from accordion to mandolin – lent the music a rootsy flavor. Oddly, some of his older favorites – “Blow Up Your TV”, “Dear Abby”, “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore” – seemed somewhat out of place and gimmicky alongside the warmer, more personal material he’s been writing of late. But Prine was, far more often than not, captivating and fun. Judging from The Missing Years and his spirited live show, the man is on a roll. – Parke Puterbaugh
Photographs by Robert Willett
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