Cowboy Junkies @ the Birchmere

Once again, I have a couple shows to report, both at Virginia’s The BirchmereYo La Tengo and Cowboy Junkies (and I’m going back there next Monday to see Robert Fripp). I only have a few minutes right now so I’m going to write about the latter first, as I have a bit more to say about the former.

Cowboy Junkies are an old favorite of mine; I have probably 10 of their albums and always enjoy them when I’m in a quiet mood. They don’t exactly fit in with this website all that much, although one could say that their crossover between old-school country and rock is a reasonably innovative meshing of styles. They boast some excellent musicians, but the heart of the band has always been vocalist Margo Timmins, whose husky, powerful voice is an unmistakable force. I had never seen them in concert before, and they didn’t disappoint, even though I’m not particularly fond of their latest album, At the End of Paths Taken. They played a bunch of stuff from their older albums, including a couple from The Trinity Session, their breakthrough record, in celebration of its 20th anniversary, and a couple from Lay It Down, the 1996 album where I feel they achieved their best marriage of country, rock, and just plain great melodic songwriting.

If I was surprised by anything, it was by how edgy these guys have become. Aside from Timmins’ vocals, Jeff Bird on harmonica and (especially) electric mandolin was absolutely mesmerizing, and he churned out some really great, strident, wonderfully dissonant solos on both instruments. I really didn’t expect them to rock out like that, but Bird was very impressive in that respect. Their closing song was their interpretation of Bruce Springsteen’s “State Trooper” — on album, this is a stark, almost doomy four-minute interpretation, and live, it was equally stark but stretched out to something closer to 10-15 minutes. This was AWESOME. It was as if the band had suddenly taken a huge dose of Mogwai or GYBE! influnce, or decided to get a bit Krautrocky a la Wilco’s “Spiders (Kidsmoke).” A repetitive, driving bass line underpinned the whole song, while Bird and Mike Timmins on guitar spewed out brief, spiky solos and Margo Timmins mumbled short vocal lines in a resigned, doom-laden fashion. The volume levels were ratcheted up and down with regularity, creating troughs and crescendoes that would make any post-rock band proud. I could hardly believe what I was hearing but this was absolutely great.

I love the Cowboy Junkies for their melodicism, hooks, lyrics, all that good stuff, but I was most impressed by them in concert for their edginess and willingness to experiment and really put on a show instrumentally, especially with that electric mandolin. Quite the pleasant surprise!

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