Live Addiction: Cowboy Junkies In California
San Francisco is cold and the off-airport rental lot looks as grey as the clouds. The bright red Ford Focus, pockmarked with scratches and door dings, provides the only blemish of color upon the dour landscape. I drop a few bags in its trunk and head south, away from the slow, snarling line of cars creeping towards San Francisco. I search Yelp for which record stores open earliest along my route and turn my navigation over to the GPS. Ten minutes later, I realize that the phone’s GPS doesn’t want to work in Silicon Valley and I miss the first two turns of my trip.
Exactly when I left normal I don’t recall (my mom has plenty of pictures that argue I was never there) but October 10, 2003 comes to mind. On that night, I celebrated my 25th Cowboy Junkies concert in Madison, WI and the band dedicated the rarely played “Leaving Normal” to me in honor of this “achievement”. Maybe it was weird but I knew plenty of people who had seen their favorite band a few dozen times over the years. As I wind my way into the hills of Saratoga, CA for my 109th Cowboy Junkies concert, I’m fully aware that normal is a distant memory but I care not. This is “my band”, the group that made the most sense to me at the impressionable age of 14 and one that continues to write songs that scratch a hard to find itch in my soul.
An aspect of Cowboy Junkies that gets almost no attention is the band’s punk roots which were put in place during Mike Timmins (guitar) and Alan Anton’s (bass) time in Hunger Project. The roots of Hunger Project, and ultimately Cowboy Junkies, lie in the bands that arose in the aftermath of punk: Gang of Four, Wire, PiL, Joy Division, and The Cure. Years of toiling under the “alternative country” tag has done little to change the post-punk architecture of Cowboy Junkies where exploration takes precedence over rock traditions.
Apart from the funereal cover of The Cure’s “Seventeen Seconds” (never released on an album), the clues are buried from view within the band’s unique alchemy of blues, country, folk and rock. Listen to the bass line propelling “My Little Basquiat” as the guitar spits out white noise and you hear echoes of the Velvet Underground, Joy Division, and Television all in the same moment. There is a sly subversiveness to what the band does when you dig into every corner of their catalog, as an obsessive fan is prone to do. On their best songs, comedy and tragedy dance together by candlelight as the outside world disintegrates around them.
Winding my way into Saratoga, mansions peek out on the road as the car climbs towards the theatre, an immaculate performance space nestled on the mountain top under stately redwoods and surrounded by gardens full of sculptures. Mingling with the gathering crowd, it is clear that most in attendance aren’t deeply familiar with most of the band’s work and the show is a brief respite from the affluent curse of boredom. The band obliges a couple’s request for “Anniversary Song” but a mischievous sparkle in Margo’s eye reveals her to be an unreliable narrator. Her knowing smile reminds us that such “perfect moments” in life are fleeting and rare and singing about it is a bit silly.
From domestic abuse (“Shining Teeth”) to sexual assault (“Hunted”) to environmental indifference (“Thousand Year Prayer”), the band prefers to dig into the dirty truths that quietly choke our society like traffic on the 101. Enchanted by Margo Timmins, the siren sweetly singing, the audience lets down its guard and the band’s subversive music takes control. Suddenly, the couple out for a mid-week concert starts to squirm unconsciously in their seats because the skeletons in their closet are having a fine time dancing to the music.
Saratoga turns into Berkeley for night two of this mini-tour. I slide into soundcheck as I have done countless times before. As an eager fan in college, the band recognized my passion and allowed me to lurk in the shadows and observe how the show came together (or they were too polite as Canadians to kick me out). As a music fanatic, this is the sort of minutiae that I’ve always lived for: slight adjustments to an arrangement, how singer Margo Timmins reacts when brother Michael calls out a particular song, whether a song should be played on the acoustic or a Telecaster. Seeing a band you love navigate the day to day aspects of their art adds immense appreciation to the final product: the concert.
Taking the stage in Berkeley, the slow drone of “Lay It Down” builds around us as Margo steps to the microphone and sings “He left his dead out in an open field” with her blonde hair falling around her face. The mood is set. A biting Vic Chesnutt cover (“Ladle”) takes us further down into the darkness. One of the most uplifting moments of the night is crowd favorite “Sun Comes Up It’s Tuesday Morning” which chronicles a woman starting her day after a relationship has ended in tatters. Having sung this song for over 25 years, Margo’s delivery now comes from a place of understanding that was out of reach in 1989 when her brother handed her the lengthy lyrics.
Sprinkled around the venue are other llamas (a term bestowed on the band’s version of Dead Heads who travel from show to show) including long time friend Jeff who sits next to me at Margo’s feet. In 2002, he was just a name on the band’s message board when he offered me a couch to crash on in San Francisco. It was the beginning of leaving normal as a fan. Soon, fans around the country opened their homes to other fans and a community was born in the spirit of bands like the Grateful Dead. Without the community, few of us would be able to travel as often as we do. Almost on cue, legendary band taper Steve and his wife ask if I want to crash at their house outside Sacramento after tomorrow’s show.
One more drive in the morning brings me into Sacramento, nondescript and windy. Rummaging through the last record store on this trip, I come upon a promo-only 12” of Cowboy Junkies’ “Misguided Angel”. Also on the vinyl is a handful of live tracks from their 1989 show at The Roxy on Sunset Strip when they were the toast of the music scene. Margo still tells stories about meeting Bruce Springsteen that night. At sound check, the band signs yet another piece of their history for me while debating where they took the cover picture. If you care about a band too much (and if you don’t, you haven’t read this far anyway), you start to realize that the tiny details you consider significant to a band’s history are often nothing more than faint memories to the musicians.
The third night of the tour gets a little rowdier as the sold-out audience kicks off their weekend with a surge of enthusiasm. During “Just Want To See” (a song about the many ways we can die), Margo knocks her lyric book to the ground and the band does an extended solo as her tech works to set it right. Such unexpected turns within a show are what makes each night such a rewarding experience. The jam band pilgrim sitting next to me mentions a desire to hear the band’s trippy “Working On A Building” and a few songs later it appears, for the first time on the tour. As the instruments ebb and flow, Margo steps outside the band’s circle and watches from the back of the stage, seemingly as engaged as the rest of us by the interplay of guitar and mandolin.
All told, the band plays 41 different songs over the three nights in northern California. A few songs appear nightly and one of them, David Bowie’s “Five Years”, emerges as a new staple of the nightly encore. Having covered songwriting legends both famous (Neil Young, Dylan) and obscure (Townes Van Zandt, Vic Chesnutt), tackling Bowie feels significantly different from anything they’ve done before. Artistically, they have come full circle to their post-punk roots where artists like Bowie were the inspiration for a thousand bands. The wonder and awe they felt for Bowie as teenagers, possibly before they picked up instruments themselves, comes through each night as Margo sings of milkshakes and broken soldiers. It’s the same wonder and awe I first felt when I heard Cowboy Junkies as a kid and it’s the reason why I’m already looking forward to the next show.