Live Reviews

Cowboy Junkies – Buxton Opera House: Live Review

Cowboy Junkies – Buxton Opera House – 19th November 2022

A calm and focussed force majeure unleash their controlled maelstrom without fuss or histrionic.

Cowboy Junkies must get sick and tired of being called quiet and low-key, as the reality is so much undersold by any such assumptions. Sure, they may leave your eardrums intact at the end of the evening, but, were it not for their lack of any rock’n’roll stage presence, there was as much electricity here as many a more obvious culprit, and, if their amps weren’t ratcheted up to 11, there were plenty times where they hit a 10, if then dipping back, as abruptly, into pindrop territory. That takes some class and not a little practice, both of which the unchanging four plus one have in plenty.

An unbelievable 30 years since I caught them last, this was a welcome catch-up, with many, if not most of, their recordings an essential purchase along those three decades. This tour was, in part, to celebrate this year’s ‘Songs of the Recollection’, a new album only in name. Indeed, as Margo Timmins tonight reminded us, many of these songs go back decades, with some having had earlier life on tribute discs and the like. Whilst I could agree with the curmudgeonly view expressed elsewhere, yes, some new would be nice, but, given cover versions by the Cowboy Junkies are so lovingly and carefully crafted, the option to miss out that experience would be foolish. Not a mistake i’d be prepared to make.

The stage at Buxton was set simply. A drum kit, several chairs, with instruments racked alongside, with some tulips in a vase, placed centrally on a small table, next to a higher chair and a lectern. The Opera House is a magnificent venue, resplendent in stucco and featuring 3, maybe 4, tiers of seating, yet still managing to feel compact. It must be years since I have seen the pay-a-pound opera glasses, but, yes, they were here, were anybody still using coins. It must cost a fortune to run. Bang on 8pm a torch shone around from the wings, alerting the sound man, and we were off. On the one side of the stage stood Alan Anton, near motionless in front of Peter Timmins’ drum kit. Barely acknowledging anything or anyone, and dressed in black, he cut a suitably dissolute preacherman figure, as his thumb and fingers walked all over his bass, the epitome of cool. On the other side, Timmins’ big bro, Michael sat, hunched and bespectacled, over a successive bevy of guitars, sat stock still, bar, again, his fingers. Towards the back, on that side of the stage, sat the ever faithful Jeff Bird, a presence on most if not all the Junkies’ tours and many of their records, a polymath adept as much on mandolin as he is on lapsteel, let alone harmonica and some atmospheric additional percussion. And then, la Belle Margo, resplendent in a flowing prairie style frock, a mane of silver-white hair the envy of many of the equivalently aged ladies in the audience.

Timmins, P, was the first to start, the drums. precise and hypnotic, and it was clear they were going to start, as does the album, with Five Years, Bowie’s opener and the introduction, of sorts, to Ziggy Stardust. A wonderful rendition, the vocal here seemed more impassioned than the record, giving a greater ownership than on the recorded version. With the rest in the hands of the rhythm section, the sound balance perfect, the elder Timmins and Bird were content to add peals of atmospheric discord. With the gap being provided by some psychedelic freeform instrumental pyrotechnics, it was a moment before the unmistakeable two chord trick of Sweet Jane became apparent. With some hushed recognition coming from the audience, perhaps surprised to hear this almost “greatest hit” coming so soon, it was a belter, Timmins becoming absorbed into the texture of the song, losing herself in a controlled reverie. Only now did she speak, to explain the set, it being a short first half, to introduce the new record, followed by a longer second set for “all the songs you have probably come along to hear.”

Thence a brief historical interlude around her growing up listening to the Rolling Stones, before a consummately bleak No Expectations, drawn out a little longer and a little darker than the LP version. Bird was by now getting into his groove, his lapsteel soaring. “And I was then just the right age for punk rock,” she said, before their version of the Cure’s Seventeen Seconds. Post-punk, perhaps, but only a pedant would point that out, and like the recorded version, this was an extended wig-out, Timmins’ guitar squalling manically, and, indeed, maniacally, lots of echo, lots of reverb. Shut your eyes and the sound would seem impossible to be coming from a stage of mostly sitting seniors. That mood continued into the next song, one of their own, Just Want To See, another wig out, with a fair amount of feedback frenzy. At this stage, I glanced stageward, surprise to see that Michel Timmins was studiously here playing rhythm, and that the wild and frantic electrical storm was coming from Bird and his mandolin, like no mandolin I have heard before or since.

Needing a dip in mood after that one, a consummate Sun Comes Up, It’s Tuesday Morning, the first of 3 songs from 1990’s The Caution Horses. Bird was now blowing some never more high plains drifter harmonica, and this song, a classic of the Junkie’s moody soundscapes, was a beauty. A brief aside about how Canadian bands are required to always have a Neil Young song, or more, in their set, and it was straight into their incandescent reworking of Don’t Let It Bring You Down, seen as a highlight of the ‘Recollections’ collection and certainly fulfilling that role tonight. Wonderful. Time for a drink.

A snifter in the delightfully bijou Stalls Bar, named with economy and accuracy, and it was back in. Having been allocated a seat in the back row, next to the sound desk, I now decided to prowl a good few rows further forward; the Opera House was sadly less than fully subscribed, not that the increasingly vociferous punters would let you know that fact, the quiet and polite reception to the first half loosened by some Peak Ales. Given this half was to be the songs expected, I confess to wondering whether that was what was given, with most of the songs coming from later releases. I know these albums less well, and would guess so to the audience. Having said, it mattered not a jot, as the quintet continued to evoke their repertoire of quiet, louder, quieter still, and dignified freak out with aplomb. So the gentler Things we Do To Each Other led into the polite pandemonium of My Little Basquiat. A word here for Peter Timmins, whose drumming was never less than exemplary, in especially the slower songs, so all of them, his fills inventive, with lots of variations. A favourite sound seems to be the metallic clang, so loved by John Densmore, and it was The Doors I was reminded of in some of this band’s more extensive impros. Escape Is So Simple then reminded us of why the band often get labelled as alt-country, with Bird’s mandolin trilling in more orthodox mode, with the following song, the traditional Working On A Building, being, in turn, positively bluesy. (Don’t forget their very first album was mostly all of blues standards.) I didn’t recognise this song, it having been excluded from the original vinyl of their landmark Trinity Sessions. I enjoyed it.

At this moment, the younger Timmins and Anton left the stage, allowing for a trio of acoustic songs, with Timmins’ voice now allowed to be a lead, rather than just part of the overall sonic experience. ‘Something More Beside You’ and ‘Horse In The Country’ simmered in this setting, but the version of the Townes Van Zandt staple, ‘Rake’, took things to a whole new level of wonder. But anyone thinking this mood might linger, as the rhythm section returned, and the others plugged back in, it was to a trio of rockers that they then unleashed, as to bludgeon us, softly, to submission. Another gear change and we were back to ‘Trinity Sessions’ for a gloriously organic ‘Misguided Angel’. Announced as the last track, thanks from the stage was offered to their own crew, to the team at Buxton and to us, the audience, a suitably statuesque piece to end the show.

But, of course, it wasn’t, with a curiously old-fashioned encore experience, treated appropriately by the now standing attendees. ‘Cause Cheap Is How I Feel is perhaps the most idiosyncratic song they perform, the song you would play to anyone wishing to break their CJ cherry, and it was played with a grand translucent coolness and precison, leaving only a ‘can you see what it is yet?’ start to Walking After Midnight, the familiar song then sufficient to send us all home, well contented, to our beds. By 10.45, at that, I was still home by that witching hour, but I did no walking.

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