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Thursday, 19 April 2012 15:11

Concert review: Cowboy Junkies dive into the darkness at the Sheldon Concert Hall, Wednesday, April 18

Concert review: Cowboy Junkies dive into the darkness at the Sheldon Concert Hall, Wednesday, April 18 facebook.com/cowboyjunkies
Written by Robin Wheeler
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Wednesday night started rough for the Cowboy Junkies. Lead singer Margo Timmins was recovering from a week-long illness, pulling away from the microphone to quietly cough while sipping mug after mug of hot tea.

Not that it showed in her vocal performance; Timmons has maintained her languid, lush vocals. On opening song "Sing in My Meadow," her voice nearly overwhelmed the Sheldon's usually spot-on sound system. It took several songs to get the system tweaked to honor her formidable skills.

Timmins announced that the band would be performing two sets. The first set taken from "The Nomad Series," a four-disc series they wrote and recorded over the last two years.

The next two songs -- "See You Around" and "West of Rome" -- came from "Demons," the second "Nomad Series" album. Recorded in tribute to the late Vic Chestnutt, both songs embodied the darkness and angst of the musician's suspected suicide in 2009. Between the somber songs, the band ignored one fan who hollered, "Let's go Blues!" to the Canadians. Mid-eulogy might not be the best time for hockey trash talk. Instead the band indulged in soaring pedal guitar and the right mix on Timmins' vocals.

"3rd Crusade" returned to the heavy drums and guitar of the opening song. Both are from "Sing in My Meadow." After the song, Timmins talked about the recording process, saying that the men in the band went to their "smelly" garage studio and created "evil-sounding noises" while she sat in the house, wondering how she was going to sing with the music they were making. She managed well, keeping up with the blast of blues rock that sounded more rambunctious than evil.

From "Renmin Park," an album inspired by songwriter-guitarist Michael Timmins' three months in China, came "I Cannot Sit Sadly By Your Side," a cover of a Chinese pop song. Margo explained that the translation proves "they're just as depressed as we are." Sure enough, a murder ballad translated from a language halfway around the world proved to me as atmospheric and brutal as the ones born in the Mississippi delta. "Stranger Here" from the same album was solid.

Margo introduced the fourth album, "The Wilderness," by calling it "quintessential Cowboy Junkies" and "their mom's favorite," as it's rooted in their folk singer-songwriter tradition. "Damaged From the Start" indeed carried the band's early work forward, managing to be quiet and moody without being sleepy. Drummer Peter Timmins provided a delicate foundation formed with controlled timpani mallets.

Before "Confessions of Georgie E.," Margo confessed that, until a recent performance, she wasn't sure what the song was about. She didn't share her discovery with the audience, instead letting the drone of the pedal steel and her haunted vocals evoke the sparse tale. It's the expected progression of Cowboy Junkies at their late-1980s best.

Ever self-effacing, Margo promised that they were almost finished with the newer songs and would get to the classics soon. At first it seemed like she wasn't enthusiastic about the new material, but the heart she gave to set-closer "Fairytale" proved otherwise, with her voice sparkling among the trembling mandolin and acoustic guitar in the madrigal-influenced song.

They started big with the second set of Cowboy Junkies classics, opening with "Sweet Jane." Refined and delicate with a burst of funk guitar in the break, it's easy to remember why Lou Reed once said the band recorded the best version of his song. Margo's tightly-controlled vocals were sometimes nothing more than a sigh as she walked past her microphone. That's all that was needed to recreate the dreamy classic.

"Common Disaster" also retained all of its previous power, as did "200 More Miles," which Margo said felt just as true now with their incessant touring as it did when it was originally recorded. The honesty came through in the performance.

Halfway through "Holy Ghost Building," Margo abruptly walked off stage, conferred with their guitar tech, and remained gone for awhile. She hadn't mentioned her illness at this point, so it seemed a bit awkward. The band covered well, falling into an intricate blues jam until she returned for the last of the song.

"See what I have to put up with?" she joked afterwards.

"Witches" came from a request through the band's website. The beginning was marred by guitar technical difficulties, but once they were resolved siblings Margo and Michael on acoustic guitar did justice to the rarity that led into "Cotton Boll Blues." With just the addition of harmonica, Margo carried the song to a whipping blues scat that defied her illness.

The set concluded with a searing funk-blues-country jam on "Just Want to See" and "Those Final Feet" before playing the promised "Misguided Angel." Margo commented on the enthusiasm of the half-empty room before launching into the harrowing narrative of a surely-doomed affair, smiling through the foreboding but beloved lyrics.

They ended the two-song encore with what Margo described as "Canadian funk" before laughing off a few false starts to the spirited and cheeky, "Fuck, I Hate the Cold." Without veering from her signature style, Margo's soft croon managed to make the words, "And, fuck, I hate the cold. I fucking hate it" sound ethereal and filled with longing despite a chuckle. Even in jest, there's that darkness.

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