The Cowboy Junkies were only an hour into the opening show of their summer co-headlining tour with Son Volt when dreamy singer Margo Timmins remarked, “Wow, we have one more song to do and, I have to say, I’m ready for my bed.”
Thankfully, the energetic crowd on July 8 at the Ogden Theatre in Denver kept Timmins and her bandmates awake long enough for the finale, along with two encores. That completed a comfortable, if not totally captivating, evening of the laid-back sounds from two of alt-country’s coolest and calmest acts.
If there was any electricity in the air, it came from the crowd, which was pumped up to see this challenging pairing perform extended sets. The Junkies seemingly play in Denver and throughout Colorado every year now, while Son Volt was getting back in the game with the Rounder Records’ release of their latest, American Central Dust, just a day earlier.
And while the Junkies’ next album is still months away from completion (their most recent collection of original material, At the End of Paths Taken, came out in 2007), they did pepper their set of familiar tunes (including three from 1988s breakthrough The Trinity Session) with a few new tracks. The longtime critical darlings also borrowed again from one of their major influences, covering Neil Young’s “Don’t Let It Bring You Down.”
Son Volt, the band fronted by Jay Farrar (left) that will switch opening/closing duties throughout this three-week stint with the Junkies, set the tone with a listless start. But they stormed back with some masterful playing by guitarist Chris Masterson and relied heavily on their new record, with “No Turning Back” and “Down to The Wire” the standouts among at least six tracks presented from American Central Dust. Finishing their hourlong set with Waylon Jennings’ rollicking “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way,” propelled by Mark Spencer’s blistering steel guitar, the St. Louis-based quintet gave the paying customers high hopes in anticipation of the Junkies’ return.
A fan waiting in line long before the doors opened at 7 p.m. capsulized the appeal of the Canadian mood swingers, saying, “I can’t think of any better way to spend a night than sitting back with a margarita and listening to the Junkies.”
Unfortunately, the group didn’t seem to share the crowd’s enthusiasm. Margo and her band of brothers, including Mike on guitars and Pete on drums – along with longtime friend Alan Anton (bass) and regular contributor Jeff Bird (mandolin, harmonica) – seemed out of sorts from the start. Reaching down into their vast songbook – “Crescent Moon,” “A Common Disaster” and “Brand New World” were from three CDs covering a 14-year span – they went to work without acknowledging the presence of the packed house.
Sure, it’s all about the serious business of making music and Margo (right), hiding in plain sight with her head bowed and eyes wide shut, has come across as the shy-and-retiring type since the band’s debut in 1986. That’s part of the charm of the lovely woman with the silky smooth pipes, who’s much more gregarious in post-show meet-and-greets, even admitting to the crowd, “I love to chat.” But at age 48, it’s probably time she broke out of her stage shell.
Maybe the sluggish pace was caused by the rigors of beginning another tour and the travel involved. (But can you get jet lag from a Toronto-to-Denver flight?) Mike did shed some light on the situation, writing on the Junkies’ tour diary, “Opening nights are always difficult no matter how many opening nights one has had in a career. In a co-bill situation there are all sorts of logistical issues that need to be ironed out, so that adds to the stress.”
He wasn’t too thrilled about the Ogden, either, calling it “a theater in name only. It’s one of those venues that was once a movie theater but has long ago been gutted, had a bar put in to the back of the room, outfitted with a shitty soundsystem and had a couple of storage closets turned into dressing rooms; voila, a music club. These types of venues are all over the country and we usually try and avoid them.
“They are uncomfortable for the audience, uncomfortable for the band and crew and don’t usually inspire the most memorable night of music: tonight held true to form. We had a tough time with our sound on stage, fought it throughout the show and never really settled in to a groove.”
If the band struggled (and skipped “Still Lost” from their planned setlist), most of the audience either couldn’t tell or couldn’t care less. Except for a few tipsy ticket-holders who knocked over a couple of beer bottles near the front of the stage during Margo’s sweet “Fairytale” (a new song that’s a favorite of her 6-year-old son Ed), the crowd stayed quiet during the gentle moments. They were particularly rapt for the forever wondrous “Misguided Angel,” The Trinity Session’s classic that was bolstered by Bird’s mandolin. And they erupted when Mike wailed on his guitar during frenzied runs through an all-too-brief “Murder, Tonight, In the Trailer Park” and injected powerful bursts of slide throughout “Sing In My Meadow,” another recent addition to the Junkies’ formidable catalog that made up for some earlier bouts of lethargy.
After admitting she wanted to hit the hay, Margo, wearing a loose-fitting, flowery dress that competed with the vase of fresh-cut stems on the stand next to her, finally warmed up to the audience. Before tackling “Lost My Driving Wheel,” she gave a shout-out to Son Volt, saying she expected all of them to get “very close” over the next few weeks. When a fan let out a loud whoop, Margo quickly added, “Not that close,” before erupting into laughter.
That’s as animated as it got onstage. At least Mike, seated in his customary position to Margo’s right for the entire show, recognized the most valuable players on this night were sitting offstage.
In the diary, he added: “Sometimes the gulf between what is happening on stage and what is happening in the audience is huge: it seemed that most people were having a good time and in the end that is what really matters.”
With that, the Junkies were off and running. But hopefully not before getting a good night’s sleep.
• More photos of the Cowboy Junkies/Son Volt concert in Denver are available at flickr.com.
• Check out two versions of “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way.” Son Volt performs in Tallahassee, Florida, on February 21, 2009:
• And Waylon Jennings, the legendary outlaw country singer who died in 2002 at the age of 64, performs the song he wrote: