Live Review: Cowboy Junkies, Royal Festival Hall, London – 27th November 2022

Photo: Heather Pollock

If there was an award for the most understated arrival on stage Cowboy Junkies would be strong contenders. For a show of such total immersion into a deep well of genres, whether their own material or songs by others, this return to the Royal Festival Hall would take some beating.

With a friendly wave, vocalist Margo Timmins, her two brothers Michael and Peter, Alan Anton and Jeff Bird walked purposefully across the sparsely filled and low lit stage to their positions. A couple of beats from drummer Peter and they were off into David Bowie’s ‘Five Years’ from ‘Ziggy Stardust’, also from the recent Junkies release ‘Songs Of The Recollection’. During its unshakeable pace Margo turned prophet with, “Five years, that’s all we’ve got”, a chilling message with which to start a performance. Next up was the Cowboy Junkies classic ‘Sweet Jane’ from ‘The Trinity Session’, made in the Toronto church of the same name way back in 1988. For menace both vocally and in the first jam from Michael Timmins, Lou Reed and The Velvet Underground would have been impressed. After only two songs Margo appeared to be in another world, so engrossed in the song.

While cover is a valid description the word does no justice in how this group approach songs by other artists. As they said about their recent release, these are not so much covers but “reinterpretations”. Before becoming musicians these songs had been highlights of their own record collections. That love of music and ability to place themselves into a song adding another dimension is far more than just recording a cover. In her welcome Margo joked about selling plenty of records tonight so they lighten their load for tomorrow’s return home but a serious point was crystal clear, Cowboy Junkies select their reinterpretations very carefully and these have come to define them as a band as much as their own material. Following on with a lusciously bluesy take on ‘No Expectations’ by The Rolling Stones, The Cure’s ’17 Seconds’ gave Michael Timmins and Alan Anton full licence to demonstrate their improvisational creativity, perhaps harking back to the post punk influences they were developing pre Cowboy Junkies. Continuing with ‘A Common Disaster’ from their 1996 album ‘Lay It Down’ was a good example of applying those influences to their own material.

Photo: David Jarman

After all this genre busting the pounding blues chords from Michael duelling with Jeff Bird’s lap steel on ‘Shining Moon’, was a timely reminder of where Cowboy Junkies started. This Lightning Hopkins song is the first track on their debut album, mainly of blues, ‘Whites Off Earth Now!!’ But when it comes to other people’s music, for a Canadian band Neil Young must feature. Haunting and guaranteed to do just that, ‘Don’t Let It Bring You Down’ gave Margo’s voice tremendous scope to fill the vast space of this hall as they concluded the first set.

For their second set Cowboy Junkies delved deeper into their extensive back catalogue in what felt like two mini sets either side of an acoustic third. For those whose impression of Cowboy Junkies as a “quiet” band, informed perhaps by exposure limited to ‘The Trinity Session’, there followed some seriously involved jams to broaden that view. The title track from 2018’s album ‘All That Reckoning’ opened quietly but the blistering slide work driven by a relentless rhythm section set up ‘Missing Children’ from the same record offered another example of the interplay between Michael and Jeff Bird. Going back to 1990 and the wonderful ‘Caution Horses’ album, Bird’s opening harmonica and Margo’s lilting ‘Sun Comes Up, It’s Tuesday Morning’ brought immediate applause. Similarly, Margo’s vocals glided through the apprehensive, again experimental sounding, ‘Blue Guitar’, written by Michael incorporating words by Townes Van Zandt from the ‘Miles From Our Home’ album

photo by Lyndon Bolton

From the eponymously titled album ‘Black Eyed Man’ opened the acoustic section as Margo switched to a folkier vibe. Back to Townes Van Zandt whose ‘Rake’ came next, her introductory tribute was matched only by her heartfelt telling of what could have been his own story. This section would not have been complete without a return to Neil so ‘Powderfinger’ it was. This subdued acoustic version lacked none of the Crazy Horse power.

The others returned for ‘Cause Cheap Is How I Feel’ then all notched up a couple of gears with an explosive ‘3rd Crusade’. This centuries old story of invasion and destruction is as every bit as relevant today. Each musician rooted to his spot, only Margo moved any distance across the stage. The final crescendo was almost Doors-like. That intensity did not let up on ‘Good Friday’ while ‘Blue Moon Revisited (Song for Elvis)’ brought the set to a gentler close. Staying with ‘The Trinity Session’ the anthemic ‘Misguided Angel’ was a perfect encore. For their second encore and final song of the tour Cowboy Junkies went out with a blasting ‘Murder, Tonight, In The Trailer Park’. Margo’s Joplin-esque vocals would dispel any notion of this being a quiet band.

As this show demonstrated beyond any doubt, whether their own or their version of songs by others, Cowboy Junkies are an incredibly diverse band. Vocally, musically, together and individually theirs was a performance of total absorption.

About Lyndon Bolton 103 Articles
Writing about americana, country, blues, folk and all stops in between

9 Comments

  1. Sounds like a great show Lyndon, would have loved to get there. Pretty much a dream Junkies set list for me…

  2. Saw them in Chester. Waited 30 years to see them and missed whole first set stuck at a hotel waiting for a taxi!! I heard Horse in the Country live which was a wish of mine. Fabulous voice, fabulous playing. Hope it’s not too long before I see them again 👍

  3. Great review Lyndon. You capture the whole evening perfectly. This was my third Junkies gig and easily the most diverse and impressive. Only wish they’d given us Ooh Las Vegas but I suppose the multi-layered vocals and instrumentation might have been hard to replicate on stage.

    • Also saw the Junkies at Warwick on this this tour for the first time. Immersive is a good description of their approach, and a blistering concert, enhanced by it being in two parts ( maybe something more bands should do). A word of praise for the sound desk mixers, immersive works if you can here all musicians contributions, including Margo’s voice (an instrument itself) and the mixing was perfect. Enough said, can’t wait to see them again.

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