To many casual music fans, Cowboy Junkies emerged in 1987 with an ethereal cover of the Velvet Underground’s ‘Sweet Jane’ and then dissipated into a haze of dorm room memories. Over a twenty-five year recording career, the band has flown under most music radars while releasing increasingly diverse and challenging albums. The latest, Renmin Park, is the most sophisticated album to date and the band introduced several of the new tracks to an audience willing to listen at the House of Blues, in Houston, TX on Tuesday night.
Opening with the droning “Blue Guitar,” singer Margo Timmins kept her head low as the band around her explored the dark corners of the haunting song that was written using lyrics left behind by Texas songwriter Townes Van Zandt. His influence on the band would again surface later during an acoustic segment of the show when Margo, guitarist Michael Timmins, and Jeff Bird on mandolin gave a powerful performance of his song “Rake.” Much like Townes, the band’s special talent lies in the way they present just enough details in the music and lyrics to unearth deeper emotions at work in all of us.
Drawing from an extensive catalog of material, the band ventured away from their most well known songs on the landmark Trinity Sessions but the attention of the audience never wavered. The music flowed seamlessly from the Lightnin’ Hopkins cover “Shining Moon” on their 1986 debut album to “Cicadas” from the new release. As a loop of ambient nature sounds from China murmured between the instruments, “Cicadas” displayed the band’s unique ability to pull back at the right moments and allow the space between notes to act as an invisible instrument.
Before launching into a cover of the Rolling Stones gem “No Expectations,” Margo talked of seeing the Stones play as a teenager but never imagining being in a band. On this night in Houston, she captivated the room with the confident swagger of a blues temptress that would make Mick Jagger swoon. Knowing the band around her would not falter; she reached deep and let the music control her as her arms twirled patterns around her head.
A distortion drenched cover of Neil Young’s “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” brought the crowd to its feet in appreciation. On ‘Hunted’, drummer Peter Timmins dropped the gas on the groove and the entire room threatened to come apart at the seams as the guitar and mandolin took turns creating waves of distortion. Before anybody could catch their breath, ‘Lost My Driving Wheel’ built into a lonely lament with the kick drum beating quickly and lightly under the chorus like a heart stranded somewhere in Texas. Twenty-five years of life on the road has matured Cowboy Junkies into one of the most dynamic live bands touring. As the crowd swelled around Margo Timmins at the post-show meet and greet, it was evident that the band’s intense fan base would continue to fuel the tour bus for many years to come.