“Well, she’s got range,” I heard a woman in the row behind me at last night’s Cowboy Junkies concert remark about singer Margo Timmins as the band finished My Little Basquiat. Thing is, if you’ve only heard Sweet Jane, the achingly beautiful reading of the Lou Reed classic that was the band’s breakthrough single, or indeed anything from The Trinity Session, the 1988 album they recorded in Toronto’s Church of the Holy Trinity, then you’d perhaps not realise that Cowboy Junkies—the whole band, not just Margo—do have range. And that range was on full display at Auckland’s Bruce Mason Centre last night.
The set opened with a quick run through music from Songs Of The Recollection, the band’s most recent release. Crave! was unable to get to Takapuna in time for this part of the show—Auckland was in the process of being submerged under a torrent of rain that Margo remarked as worse than anything she’d ever seen, as she dedicated A Common Disaster to the weather—but if I’d have to miss a bit, then that would have been the bit to miss. Cowboy Junkies did, like many bands, start out recording cover versions of their favourite artists’ music, and this part of the show takes in some of their favourites, but the real gems, the Michael Timmins compositions, made up the rest of the show, which followed a quick intermission during which Margo’s son Ed refreshed the cup of tea on the table next to her stool.
And this was, very much, a “cup of tea and a stool to sit on” kind of show. Yes, songs like My Little Basquiat, or The Things We Do To Each Other, show that Cowboy Junkies can, indeed, rock out with the best of them, but this was, in the end, the understated, quiet, and frankly wonderful concert you’d expect from Cowboy Junkies. The three Timmins siblings were seated for much of the show—Michael sat hunched over his various guitars for the duration, his face rarely visible, Pete played the most detailed, delicate drumlines, brushes pounding skins and cymbals to provide a fantastic combination of intensity and understatement, Margo perched on her stool for much of the show, occasionally stepping up to the microphone stand when the song required it. And Alan Anton stood by the drumkit thumbing the bass lines that underpin and drive the music, barely moving, never, as Margo remarked, smiling, but keeping the songs together. And behind it all. honorary Junkie Jeff Bird added extraordinary harmonica and mandolin embellishments. The real crowd-pleasers like Misguided Angel, as exquisite a song as you’ll hear sung live by any band, haunted and delighted; Working On A Building or Postcard Blues were more of a slow-burn, a smoulder, as Michael teased notes out of his Telecaster and Margo moaned into the mic; Horse In the Country was a straight-ahead heartbreaker of a country classic. Range, indeed.
So look, I’m not even going to try to be objective any longer. I’ve been a fan of this band since I first heard Sweet Jane, back in 1988. I’ve followed them as they’ve flirted with full-on country (two songs from 1992’s Black Eyed Man made the acoustic portion of the set last night), and then found their sound with masterpieces like Pale Sun, Crescent Moon. I first saw them play live in Manchester in 1990, when they recorded In The Time Before Llamas at the Royal Exchange Theatre. This is music I’ve treasured for decades, and when this tour was announced, back in The Before Times, I knew I had to be there. The tour was originally to promote their 2018 album All That Reckoning, but Covid, as it has had a habit of doing over the last three years, changed everything—even the band’s usual post-show meet-and-greet with the audience is a thing of the past. In the nearly three years that the show has been postponed, the band have released two new albums—last year’s covers set, as well as Ghosts in 2020—and one old one, Sharon, a recording of the Sharon Temple sessions songs that eventually made their way onto 1990’s The Caution Horses.
So last night’s show was in support of Songs Of The Recollection, but the lion’s share of the set was a run through their favourites, and mine—I spoke to Margo Timmins as part of the promotion for the original schedule for the tour, back in 2019, and she promised me then that they would play Powderfinger when they came to Auckland. And when the band came back on stage for the encore last night, she told the audience “You can tell we’re happy if we play two Neil Young songs. And we’re really happy tonight.” And so was I; I’ll kid myself that Margo remembered her promise to me, but at any rate she, Michael and Jeff Bird played a pared-back, acoustic version of the Neil Young classic, and it was all but perfect.
And Margo was, indeed, happy last night. You’d never guess from her voice, but yesterday, she told us, was her 62nd birthday (complete with cake and candles, brought out on stage by her son). No, she doesn’t hang out in the higher registers she used to haunt back in the Trinity Session days, thirty-five years ago, but her voice remains as strong and clear and beautiful as ever it was, and the stage fright she has famously fought over the years is not in evidence—along with the rest of the band, she performed beautiful songs beautifully. And it’s clear that she, and the rest of the band, enjoy playing the songs that have found them a small but loyal following around the world. Certainly the audience at Auckland’s Bruce Mason Centre enjoyed the show enormously; as Pete Timmins beat out the intro to ‘Cheap Is How I Feel, I sat back in my seat, let the music envelope me, and thought about how glad I was to have chosen this show tonight, and not Elton John.