Sleeping Under Strange Skies With Cowboy Junkies – 11.18.09 – 11.21.09
The brakes of the train groaned under me as we slowed to a halt in a field just north of Rouses Point, NY and the border patrol agent took to checking the documents of the rumbled, weary travelers in the Amtrak car. All four of us. What brings you to Canada, he asked, looking at my passport. Going to see some concerts, I replied. A band from Toronto, Cowboy Junkies, I added. No response. Have a good time he finally offered, satisfied that I posed no threat to US-Canadian relations. With that, I arrived in Canada, 5,000 miles from my home in Hawaii.
If the current U2 tour is the giant glazed donut calling my name at Tim Horton’s on my first morning in Montreal, this Cowboy Junkies tour is a Timbits sized excursion with just four shows in four nights before the band flies home to Toronto. Montreal serves as the home for nights one and two and the band has sold-out both nights at a new club in the heart of the city’s impressive arts district. My travelling partner from previous tours, Ian, arrives from Ottawa. Leaving wife and daughter to wonder if he’s slightly crazy for following the same band from show to show, we head out into the falling temperatures.
Opening both of the Montreal shows is Lee Harvey Osmond, an irreverent folk collective fronted by Tom Wilson of Blackie & the Rodeo Kings. Michael Timmins of Cowboy Junkies produced their album, which features members of Cowboy Junkies, the Skydiggers, and other Canadian artists. On this tour, Lee Harvey Osmond is Tom Wilson and an acoustic guitar. Striking a huge presence on stage in extra long boots with tips curling to the sky, he is equal parts storyteller, troublemaker, comedian, and rock star. His too short set both nights features guest appearance by various members of Cowboy Junkies. On the second night, Junkies drummer Pete ends up playing bass and Junkies bass player Al ends up pounding out the rhythm on drums as Tom takes the Velvet Underground’s “I Can’t Stand It” for a workout.
Night one after a layoff usually rattles on the rails and it takes a few songs for the Junkies to find their groove. Unafraid of tackling covers reaching back to their breakthrough moment with Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane,” singer Margo Timmins reflects on her early days growing up in Montreal and camping out for tickets to see bands like Rolling Stones. With that, the band adds a new cover to their setlist with the Stones’ “Moonlight Mile.” The rhythm section takes a break shortly after and guitarist/songwriter/brother Michael and singer/sister Margo begin fleshing out two new songs with a sparse guitar supporting Margo’s celestial voice. The band comes together soon after to lay claim to Neil Young’s “Don’t Let It Bring You Down” to an appreciative Canadian audience.
More comfortable with a night under their belts and with a collection of friends in attendance from their young days in Montreal, the band is near the top of their game on the second evening. Repeating only four songs from the night before, the band explores its long history, rewarding fans with two cuts from 1986’s debut album, Whites Off Earth Now! and finishing the night with a sparkling take on “Blue Moon Revisited (Song For Elvis).” As she has done at almost every single show the band has played over their 20 plus years of touring, Margo is out in the venue lobby after the show talking to fans and politely listening to story after story about how the Trinity Session changed someone’s life.
A late night of drinking gives way to a rainy, cold Montreal morning as we scramble for the train station. Due to navigational challenges, Ian and I are taking the train to Quebec City, renting a car, and driving two hours back towards Montreal to catch tonight’s show in Lennoxville, a very small town outside the small town of Sherbooke. Rolling across the back roads of the province, the natural beauty and openness of the Canadian landscape holds our attention. The influence such a landscape has had on bands like Cowboy Junkies is all too obvious when seen first hand.
The band plays a small college campus but the students are either away for holiday or at one of the two pubs in town. The crowd is much older and the venue is designed for live theater giving the evening a much different vibe from the two nights in Montreal. Unable to fully connect with the distant audience, the band plays it fairly safe and delves deep into the landmark Trinity Session album. Having never played the town before, the crowd is clearly pleased to hear familiar tunes and the band dusts off “Sweet Jane” to much applause.
The new songs have begun their evolution and more band members join Mike and Margo on the songs this evening. The confidence in the songs grows quickly, especially in Margo’s delivery of the new words. Seeing multiple shows allows one to witness this creative blossoming first hand and is one of the biggest rewards for making such trips. When they reach the next album, these small organic nuclei may have grown quite different but there is a small group, well, probably just two of us, who will remember the first breaths these songs took on this quiet night in front of a few hundred people.
The tour pushes on to the final stop in Quebec City. The day is spent wandering the historic streets of its old town, trying on different pubs for size and enjoying enough beer to ward off the chilling winds that lay siege to the town. Friends from previous tours join Ian and I for the show and our group swells to six as we head over to an opulent venue. Steps below the theater, children glide across an ice rink as parents shout encouragement. The sun falls behind the four hundred year wall that wraps around the city and holiday lights come on, creating an intoxicatingly perfect postcard moment.
La Palais Montcalm threatens to overwhelm the band by its sheer size, with three tiers of seating and a stage designed for full sized orchestras. From the opening drone of “Dragging Hooks,” it is clear that the band can fill the room majestically and creates both intimacy and power in the same movements time and time again. With no support act, the band divides the night into two sets and comes back from the intermission for a few unplugged numbers that add even more songs to the mini-tour’s rotation.
The “moment” of the tour comes during this second set when Al’s bass leads the band into Robert Johnson’s “Me & the Devil.” The refreshingly large audience’s responsiveness pushes the band to reach deep and Margo walks offstage to allow the space needed for Michael’s guitar and Jeff Bird’s mandolin to fight like two demons cast from the gates of hell. The feedback drenched sound spins faster and faster, forming a sonic cyclone that climbs higher and higher towards the sky. Drummer Peter Timmins and Alan Anton on bass hold it all together with a possessed beat that threatens to crack open the ground beneath us. By the time Margo returns to the microphone, a musical exorcism has taken place leaving little doubt that this “quiet” band from Toronto is not the one trick pony so often portrayed by the media.
After the show, there are more pubs and toasts to another adventure on the road completed. Stumbling in after 2am, there is barely time to nap before the alarm clock signals the beginning of an 18-hour journey back to Hawaii. There is a race through customs in Detroit, an unwanted layover in Los Angeles, and a cramped, bumpy ride across the Pacific to reach my island. At the end of the day, I have travelled over 10,000 miles to see four concerts. At the end of the day, I am left trying to figure out how soon I can do it all again.