Thursday, February 14, 2008

Cowboy Junkies revisited

I just turned 50, and I’m happy to announce that I’m skipping giddily into my second half-century. Yeah, it's a time for musing, to be sure, but I'm of the opinion that aging gets a bad rap. There’s something delightful about accumulating experience, and something equally comforting about amassing a seemingly endless sea of touchstones and allusions through individual and collective memory. What we’ve done, where we’ve gone, books we’ve read, events we've witnessed, and oh so much music we've enjoyed – it's the ongoing reflection on all these, either deeply or as hints of allusion – that adds luminance and luster to where we are in the present. Heady, sure, but 50 does that.

The whole thing – this living in the world – is far more enjoyable thanks to the rich cultural anchors we latch on to along the way. Musically speaking, new friends come and go, and some you hang to for the long haul. For me, the Cowboy Junkies are such a band, a musical family that creates meaningful art that enriches my enjoyment and understanding of this earthly pale. That’s what good art does, and this Canadian family does it with lyrical beauty and musical depth. I’ve eagerly awaited each new release over the course of several decades, and it’s this history and appreciation that makes the release of the CD/DVD set Trinity Revisited such a delight.

Two decades ago, the Junkies cemented their sound and musical personality by recording, in the space of one November day in 1988, a set of twelve tunes in the Church of the Holy Trinity in Toronto. With The Trinity Session the three Timmins siblings – guitarist/songwriter Michael, vocalist Margo, and drummer Peter, along with bassist Alan Anton, defined the Cowboy Junkies sound. Their original material was dark and spare, evocative, elegiac, and utterly captivating, from the lover’s lament “Misguided Angel,” to the sliding bass hook and Margo’s haunting vocals on “Blue Moon Revisited (Song For Elvis).” They were putting their remarkably original sound on old and new traditions, from the dirge-like take on Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” to their remake of Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane,” which put Margo Timmins on the map as one of the most unique voices in music. It was a brilliant, influential album, and launched an illustrious career, one I’ve followed closely ever since.

Trinity Revisited features the Junkies back in Holy Trinity, singing the same songs, with a stellar set of guest musicians. The music has gained depth and context after two decades, but sounds wonderfully fresh in these takes. Guests include Natalie Merchant, who shares vocals with Margo on “Misguided Angel,” Vic Chesnutt, longtime Junkies musical companion Jeff Bird, and the hugely talented Ryan Adams. It’s great stuff, no doubt.

But the real beauty here is the sound and sight of the DVD. The band and guests sit in a circle, with masterful lighting by Eugene O’Connor and Johnny McCullagh, whose carefully placed spotlights and on-stage candles impart a warm glow to the church, with the stained-glass windows adding further ambiance. Listening to the audio CD doesn't capture the beauty of the DVD, so wonderfully filmed by Pierre and Francois Lamoureux. It’s a fitting tribute to the original recording that made the Junkies famous. Not to mention a nice birthday present for an old guy like me. Thanks, Junkies.

Photo of Margo Timmins from the Cowboy Junkies' website.

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