Arcata Eye Scene

A-town art, music, theatre. Mostly music. Updated Wednesdays.

Jason Lent: Cowboy Junkies, revisited

The Cowboy Junkies perform in HSU’s Van Duzer Theatre, Thursday, May 1. (707) 826-3928.

A tour through Northern California is all too appropriate for Cowboy Junkies. Two decades into their career, the music sounds as alive today as it did when we first heard them on a college radio station. For Margo Timmins, brothers Michael and Pete, and lifelong friend Alan Anton, the music has always been the first priority. By making the music they want to make, Cowboy Junkies have filled the proverbial cellar with music that continues to age like, well, you know the saying.

The Trinity Session, famously recorded in a church in one day, became a critical favorite in 1988. The music channeled the soul of Hank Williams through the influence of the post-punk scene to achieve a sonic whisper of aching beauty. Major labels came calling. Lou Reed paid homage to their version of “Sweet Jane”.

They found themselves on Saturday Night Live.

To commemorate the 20th anniversary of The Trinity Session, the band returned to the small church cloaked in the shadows of downtown Toronto. Rather than recreate the first experience, they brought in Ryan Adams, Vic Chestnutt and Natalie Merchant to explore new textures. The resulting CD/DVD package, Trinity Revisited, captures the understated essence of the band’s core sound with 20 years of experience swathing the songs in new colors.

Apart from a few select live shows to promote Trinity Revisited, the band remains firmly rooted in the present and their most recent album At The End Of Paths Taken. For two decades, the band has expanded and contracted their sonic palette, and Paths again rewards the attentive listener. A tightly thematic album, it explores the concept of family and introduces a string section and children’s choir to the Junkies’ trademark sound.

The band’s penchant for memorable covers remains an essential part of every live show, and their progressive outlook on the world around them inspired the 2005 release Early 21st Century Blues. The collection included the songs of Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and John Lennon and delivered a message of hope to a world held hostage by a war of fear and greed. For a band once labeled depressing, their music-inspiring hope reminds us that November can’t arrive soon enough.
I caught up via email with guitarist and songwriter Michael Timmins as the band prepares for the upcoming tour through California.

JL: The last year has mixed a tour promoting the most recent release, At The End Of Paths Taken, while revisiting Trinity Session for special shows. Has it been challenging to balance promoting the new album while also revisiting Trinity Session, sometimes within the same run of shows?

MT: It hasn’t been difficult; it just means that the shows have two focuses, Paths and Trinity. The few Trinityshows that we have done have been fun but I’ll be glad when we finally put those behind us.

JL: How difficult was it to settle into playing the album as a live set?
MT: It’s a little odd. An album is sequenced different than a set list, so the Trinity shows don’t necessarily flow like I would like. There is a real lull in the middle of the show, which is where you are supposed to flip the vinyl.

JL: I’m sitting in a coffee shop in Hawaii downloading some acoustic tracks that you recorded just a few weeks ago in Canada and released on your downloading site (latentrecordings.com). How exciting was it to resurrect Latent Recordings and how important is a project like this in a rapidly evolving music industry?

MT: Well, Latent has never really gone away – it goes through various periods of dormancy. We have been using it as our imprint for our recording for the past seven years. The launch of the downloading site definitely signals a new phase of Latent and you will start to see more albums by other artists released on Latent. So it is an exciting time… now if I could only find the time to do something with it.

JL: You’ve begun working more as a producer for other artists. What’s the most rewarding part of working outside of Cowboy Junkies?

MT: I just love listening and watching as someone else’s song blooms. Recording can be such an exciting process and I feel that my number one responsibility as a producer is to make sure that the artist is experiencing that excitement and not being intimidated, in any way, by the process.
JL: How far along is the band with the next album and will this tour “test” out some of the new material? How much influence does the band’s lineup have on the songs the band takes on each tour and vice versa?

MT: The material has some influence on who we bring, but that is balanced by economics. It would have been nice to bring out a string quartet for some of the Paths material, but we need to eat. I am hoping to start playing three or four  new songs on the upcoming leg in Northern California and continue to add new material through the summer. So we are at that stage with the next album: I have a bunch of songs (but not all of them) and the band is just being introduced to them.

JL: How has parenthood changed the band’s approach to touring?

MT: Touring is constantly evolving, especially as the ages of our kids change and their needs change. We tend to spread the touring out over longer periods of time, so instead of going out for four weeks in a row, we’ll go out for four weeks spread over four months.

JL: Early 21st Century Blues was a critical look at the decisions our current leaders have made around the world. Looking down from Canada, how closely are you following the upcoming election and what do you see as the best possible outcome?

MT: Well, if it was the year 2000, I might be OK with having McCain in the White House, but I really think that the old white guys (from any party) have had their chance and its time to move aside. My preference is Obama. If for no other reason, that the country (the world) needs to be inspired and the first few years of an Obama presidency would be very inspiring.

Jason Lent is a Hawaii-based journalist following the Cowboy Junkies on the California trek of their tour.

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