I’m sitting in an alley in Cleveland, OH and Margo Timmins of Cowboy Junkies is declaring Canada the victor of the War of 1812. A small collection of fans and a few band members have gathered around a small table where longtime fan Skippy is dishing out fresh made pasta and homemade sausages despite the dropping temperature. A biting wind blows in from Lake Erie and the surrounding buildings of brick and rust are creating a wind tunnel effect on our small tailgate party. The band is only a few hours away from their eleventh show in ten days but as is often the case with Cowboy Junkies and their music, there is no rush.
Getting to tonight’s show is a rush as my friends and I leave Chicago at 9am and aim the small Honda Civic for Cleveland. The excitement of last night’s show in Madison, WI has barely begun to subside in my veins and I’m on the road to show eleven on my waltz across the Midwest. The iPhone map counts down the hours left on the drive and I am grateful to be in the passenger seat after covering the majority of the 3,200 miles myself.
The tour began ten days earlier in Saugatuck, MI on the Kalamazoo River. I drove up from Chicago that morning full of energy and excitement about my new job for the next three months, which was not having a job and following my favorite band on tour. Blame it on a few too many viewings of Almost Famous and the fatigue of operating restaurants for a decade. I took a look at my bank account and caught a glimpse of 40 on the closing horizon. It had to be now or it would have to be never.
Opening night in Saugatuck brings the anticipation of hearing new songs and the revival of older songs that had been dormant on recent tours. The band does not keep me waiting long and three new songs are introduced. This is followed by new arrangements of old classics like “Hold On Me” from 1996’s Lay It Down, an album that was considered excellent upon release and that has improved with age. When new listeners ask me what Cowboy Junkies sound like, I give them this album. They always want to hear more (or I stop associating with them).
I wake up back in the labyrinth of Chicago’s suburban highway system and head towards downtown. The Old Town School of Folk spends most of its time giving children and adults the opportunity to learn folk instruments and music comes from every room as I wander the halls. The performance hall in the school is designed with the gentle pluck of a mandolin string in mind and the sound cannot be better for a concert. The small size of the room demands two shows and the band spreads 27 songs across the evening.
The ticking clock pushes the first show a little too quickly and the band fails to settle into the music. What makes the music of Cowboy Junkies unique is their use of space and time. It’s not how bright their songs make the stars appear in a night sky. Rather, it’s their ability to explore the darkness between the stars and show us all the space that remains unexplored in the sky and ultimately, in our lives. There’s a lot of space out there and their music needs the time to reveal it.
The second show could not be more different and showcases the band at their finest. The house lights are brought down until Margo’s reading light on her lyrics provides the brightest beacon in the venue. The rest of the band works in shadows and the dark groove of “Blue Guitar” casts the mood for the remaining set. Each song slowly drips into the next until the sonic crunch of Neil Young’s “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” sends us out into the Chicago night.
Growing up in Florida and living in Hawaii, I sometimes forget how quickly weather can change in other parts of the world. Chicago is blanketed in snow when I wake up but there is some driving to be done. Nine hours later, I am sitting in a coffee shop next to the venue in downtown St. Cloud, MN posting pictures of the snow to Facebook for my friends back in the tropics.
This is my second visit to St. Cloud which is two more than I ever expected to make in my life. The band plays a restored theater of immense size. Seven years earlier, I watched them play to a mostly empty room but tonight’s crowd swells towards capacity. The high ceilings and deep balcony give the band enough space to turn the amps up a few notches and Margo’s vocals ride atop the mix. During the final song of the night, the tide of feedback is slowly pulled away revealing the intricate bass and drums that provide the underlying structure of a confident band with twenty five years of touring on the odometer.
Sunday brings another doubleheader, this time in downtown Minneapolis. The band trades in the grandeur of the restored theater in St. Cloud for a small supper club and jazz stage. The guitar amps are nestled up against dinner tables and patrons can choose between the scallops and sea bass while they listen to festive tunes such as “Murder, Tonight, In the Trailer Park.”
The lack of space between musician and listener leads to some adjustments with the set list and the band’s crew works overtime to balance the sound throughout the odd shaped dining room. The second show marks the sixth show in four nights and the focus teeters at times but the band’s all 1970’s encore of Rolling Stones and Neil Young songs sends the older crowd home with fond memories of the bands they grew up with.
The influence of Neil Young on any Canadian band is probably a given and Cowboy Junkies is usually filed under Americana music and the associated influences of that genre. Last year’s tour with Son Volt did nothing to clear up the distinction and the songs sometimes fall within the alternative country spectrum. However, the early influence of post-punk bands such as Joy Division and The Cure are percolating in the band’s unsettling sound. It is this melding of post-punk with roots country and classic rock and roll that creates a unique sonic landscape where only Cowboy Junkies exist.
After a needed day of rest, the tour resumes in Evanston, IL and I find myself inserted into that unique sonic landscape. The performance space is really just a concrete room attached to a restaurant with tables sitting at the feet of the band. My table is almost inside Alan Anton’s bass cabinet and his instrument dominates what I hear.
While Cowboy Junkies will always be associated with Margo’s vocals, Alan’s bass lines are where the diverse elements that influence the band can be best heard. All other instruments are layered over the bass guitar on many of the band’s most defining songs and his distinct style gives the band a firm foundation on which to build music. From Joy Division and New Order to Interpol, certain bands incorporate the bass as a primary, not complimentary, component of their sound and Cowboy Junkies are one such band.
The next night finds us in Davenport, IA, a few blocks up from a threatening Mississippi River. With some luck, the rising river will wash away the casino riverboat that has sunk its talons into the waterfront of the city. The River Music Experience is an excellent idea: multiple performance areas, classrooms, and a small museum of music history related to the importance of Davenport as a tour stop in the early days of rock and roll. The execution of this idea fails on this night with a downstairs performance bleeding into the Cowboy Junkies show upstairs and a half-interested crowd more than happy to spend the evening at the bar talking story. Every tour has a night like this (sometimes more than one) and the band soldiers through the set list with heads down. For a working band on the road, there is no alternative.
In the morning, the tour rolls into Milwaukee and the wind chill is hovering around Miley Cyrus’ age. A local Cowboy Junkies fan takes me to his old neighborhood and we seek warmth in a century old Polish bar. The bartender is the fourth generation of his family to pour beer for the local community and the neighborhood has managed to withstand the gentrification of the surrounding riverfront area that creeps outwards from downtown Milwaukee.
In this bar, where you’re from in this world is measured not by neighborhood or even street. The bartender and my friend talk about house numbers and whose aunt lived near which sister back in 1978. During a lull in the exchange, the bartender tells my friend welcome home and buys us a round of beer. I take my time with the beer, knowing a larger world set adrift in a sea of strip malls, endless chains of food and drink, and the overwhelming noise of a world racing against time will be waiting when we leave this one particular harbor.
The Milwaukee show instantly captures my imagination when we enter Turner Hall. Neglected for seventy years, the hall’s restoration is far from complete but perfect as is. Netting is strung across the high ceiling to catch falling plaster and the faded, peeling walls hint at the glory years of the early 1900’s. The entire room feels untouched by the fingers of historic restoration and looks like a set design for a dystopian movie like Escape From New York or Children of Men. Cowboy Junkies are the perfect band for this venue and they play a magnificent set of music befitting a house band for the apocalypse.
The miles continue to pile up as I push the Honda Civic on towards Madison, WI. The college town is alive and the afternoon is spent exploring the intricate marble halls of the state capitol building and the funky shops that stretch towards the college campus. Finding myself in a record store for the first time in two years, I pick up and hold actual albums and C.D.’s simply for the pleasure of touching music again. There was a time when life was nothing more than a few college classes and a trip to the record store a few times a week. I still remember the record store in Tallahassee, FL where I bought the first Cowboy Junkies live album 200 More Miles. I’m quite certain I’ll never remember where I am when I click a few buttons to download an album in i-Tunes.
Tonight’s show is just as nostalgic. The sold out rock club, the line of people stretching down the street to get in, the excitement of seeing Cowboy Junkies, it all takes me back to 1994 and seeing the band for the first time as an undergrad. The club is built on an angle with the balcony slanting to the right and the downstairs bar sits a little too close to the stage. Neither architectural quirk hampers the music as the aging P.A. still has enough guts to punch through the bar’s chatter and carry Jeff Bird’s fuzz drenched mandolin to the highest corner of the room. The band keeps the music loose and delivers the hardest rocking set of the tour.
Unable to sit still, I wander from balcony to the side of the stage taking in every angle of the rock and roll experience. Perhaps sensing the nostalgic vibe of the day, the band reaches back to 1989 for the encore and plays “Sun Comes Up, It’s Tuesday Morning.” A few decades have slipped through out fingers but on nights like this, Cowboy Junkies are still the coolest band in the world for aging hipsters.
There is no resolution to the winner of the War of 1812 in the Cleveland parking lot the next afternoon. The band’s manager finally comes to pull Margo back to the tour bus to prepare for the final show of the tour leg. The rest of us head inside the venue and settle into seats for a final serving of the band’s distinct blend of music. The tapers set up in the back, the diehards jostle for the front, and everybody smiles when the first notes of “Misguided Angel” take flight during the encore.
A six-hour drive brings me back to Chicago and the end of the first leg of the 2010 tour. It covered over 3,000 miles but I was never more than eight hours from Chicago. The band played a new show every night and each venue had a unique personality that colored the experience. The end of these little tours is usually met with sadness as the real world drags me back under. This time, I’ll be remaining at large until the band surfaces in Buffalo, NY next month. There is more music waiting down this road I’m on.