Concert Review: Cowboy Junkies — Still Outside the Mainstream

By Scott McLennan

For years now, Cowboy Junkies has been bringing its brand of contemplative, atmospheric rock ’n’ roll into a patchwork of independent venues in our region.

Cowboy Junkies performing at Plymouth Memorial Hall on February 16.

Margo Timmins of Cowboy Junkies performing in Plymouth. Photo: Paul Robicheau

Cowboy Junkies played its first show of 2024 on Friday night in the Plymouth Memorial Hall, a community-run venue that opened in the 1920s. It became famous in 1975 because it was where Bob Dylan decided to launch his Rolling Thunder Revue. Today, the performance space is host to comics, illusionists, and bands working the smaller pockets of the regional entertainment ecosystem.

Hanging outside the mainstream is where Cowboy Junkies have long thrived — both musically and physically. For many years now, the band has been bringing its brand of contemplative, atmospheric rock ’n’ roll into a patchwork of independent venues in our region, making their performances feel more like a convening than a concert. Accordingly, from Plymouth the band is scheduled to trek up to Laconia, New Hampshire, and then stick around New England for a week playing other noncorporate venues in Rockport and Turner’s Falls in Massachusetts, Old Saybrook and Norwalk in Connecticut, and Newport.

The 20-song, two-set tour-opener in Plymouth found the band meandering through its vast catalog. That said, Cowboy Junkies paid particularly close attention to its latest album, Such Ferocious Beauty, as well as choosing several selections from The Trinity Session, the 1988 album that presented an unconventional sound that had been captured in the unconventional “studio” setting of a church.

Michael Timmins of Cowboy Junkies performing in Plymouth. Photo: Paul Robicheau

New was connected to old in a concert that created a smooth arc through time. Singer Margo Timmins and her brothers Peter Timmins on drums and Michael Timmins on guitars, along with fellow band mates bassist Alan Anton and multi-instrumentalist Jeff Bird, worked their patented brand of musical alchemy, a mix that absorbs squalling psychedelia as comfortably as it does rustic folk and country music.

Michael Timmins writes the band’s songs and has masterfully built a repertoire of original material that has aged in real time along with the musicians. Songs meet — often head on — the challenges of growing up and growing older, of raising kids and losing parents. There are tunes about how one deals with demanding social and political shifts that occur throughout a lifetime. But, a testament to the strength of Timmins’s writing and to the band’s finely tuned sense of working together, the Cowboy Junkies revisit older material with an inventive sensibility that brings out new insights.

For example, early in the show, Cowboy Junkies dove into its ethereal cover of Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane,” the song that introduced many to this band when it hit the airwaves. (That was back in the days when airwaves mattered and streams mostly referred to water.) Margo Timmins leaned into the line, “Me, I’m in a rock ’n’ roll band” (ironically, this lyric had been edited out of the group’s original recorded version). Her grin growing with each repetition of the phrase, her enthusiasm underscored her evident joy that, at the age of 63, she and an audience that was on average of a similar vintage as the singer, were thankfully still drinking deeply from the well of rock ’n’ roll.

When done correctly, rock ’n’ roll can be both ageless and timeless.

The songs from Such Ferocious Beauty were born from lived experiences, particularly reflective of the period during the pandemic when the Timmins siblings were caring for their father as he slowly succumbed to dementia.

The clash of inevitably and resistance could be heard in the ache of “What I Lost”; a similar tangle of emotions fueled a beautiful rendition of “Circe and Penelope,” in which ancient myth serves as a means to accept life’s regrets: “I enjoy the what-ifs and could’ve-beens.”

Cowboy Junkies closed the short Such Ferocious Beauty–heavy first set by switching over to a cover of Neil Young’s “Don’t Let it Bring You Down,” a showcase for Margo Timmins’s rich vocal timbre and the band’s ability to put its distinctive stamp on a classic song.

For its second set, Cowboy Junkies dipped into its back catalog, starting with a psychedelic spin through 2007’s “My Little Basquiat.”

The band not only trotted out some deeper cuts, but also gave fresh readings to concert staples, such as “’Cause Cheap Is How I Feel” and “Black Eyed Man,” the latter part of what turned out to be a mini dread-dripping acoustic set that also featured “Shadows 2” and “Blue Skies,” both from Such Ferocious Beauty.

Peter Timmins of Cowboy Junkies in Plymouth. Photo: Paul Robicheau

From The Trinity Session, the Cowboy Junkies delivered their take on the Allen Reynolds-penned Waylon Jennings hit “Dreaming My Dreams With You” and “Blue Moon Revisited (Song for Elvis).” The traditional gospel number “Working on a Building,” which the band included on The Trinity Session, generated the concert’s biggest emotional swell. Michael Timmins and Bird pushed the song to ragged and rapturous levels while Peter Timmins and Anton held down a hypnotic groove that blurred that line between devotion and submission. The Cowboy Junkies took us to church and then made us a little terrified to be there.

Existential angst was never far away as the band performed “A Common Disaster” and “Good Friday,” antecedents (of sorts) to newer material such as “Hard to Build. Easy to Break.”

The band’s playful side emerged during an encore reading of “Fuck, I Hate the Cold.” But before anyone could become too giddy, Cowboy Junkies closed out the night with its disquieting version of “Walking After Midnight,” which taps into something a bit more sinister in the song than what’s heard in the version popularized by Patsy Cline.

It was very rock ’n’ roll.

Scott McLennan covered music for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette from 1993 to 2008. He then contributed music reviews and features to the Boston Globe, Providence Journal, Portland Press Herald, and WGBH, as well as to the Arts Fuse. He also operated the NE Metal blog to provide in-depth coverage of the region’s heavy metal scene.

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