THE COWBOY JUNKIES
Live at the Belly Up (2015)
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A few ago, I was famous for a New York minute for teaching a college-level course on the Grateful Dead. (Put aside your outrage: It was really just a hook for exploring recent US history.) Even now, someone—students, media, a person I met at a conference—corners me to ask, "What's your favorite jam band?" They expected me to name groups like Phish, Assembly of Dust, Umphrey's McGee, or String Cheese Incident, but my answer is: The Cowboy Junkies. Students often reply, "Who?" It's a fair question in an unfair world. The CJs, after all, are Canadian and haven't charted in the U.S. since 1994. Those a bit older may recall that their "Sweet Jane" rose as high as # 5 on the pop charts back in 1989*, and that "Sun Comes Up, It's Tuesday Morning" went to #11 the next year. That's a long time ago, I suppose, but the Junkies never went away: 17 studio albums, 9 live albums, 4 compilations, and 10 singles in the past 26 years.
Let me go a step further. If you ask me to name the best jam band of all time, I'm tempted to say The Cowboy Junkies. Before you call me nuts, here's the deal of the century: go to Noisetrade's Website, and for a suggested "tip" of $5 you can download a 2014 concert from the Belly Up in San Diego whose 12 tracks sample from various CJ releases from 1988 through 2012. One of the things you'll hear on this and the band's other live albums is that, unlike the Dead, the Junkies never gave a bad performance and they continued to grow as they got older. The other thing you'll hear is lead singer Margo Timmins and if you never have before, you'll curse those who've kept her a secret from you. I like to think of her as a singer with the husk, power, and sexiness of Janis Joplin, but with the control of Grace Slick. You'll also hear that, like the Dead, the Junkies' repertoire draws from psychedelia, the blues, country, and jazz. In fact, on acid rock offerings such as "Sweet Jane," "Wrong Piano,"** and "Hunted," you can mentally time travel up the coast to the Bay Area and imagine yourself at the Fillmore circa 1967 (except the sound quality will be better)—fuzzed out electric guitar, reverb, sonic walls through whose cracks liquid guitar notes pore, robust swirls, and bring-me-up-ease-me-down arrangements. Check out also the country blues vibe of "MisguidedAngel," *** which is the sort of song Joplin would have sung, but maybe not as well as Ms. Timmins. It's about a woman in love with a bad boy. She knows the relationship is an addiction and won't end well, but she's all in. Timmins grinds out the pathos, but she never goes over the top, which heightens her vulnerability.
On the latter score, many CJ songs deal with women in precarious, even dangerous, situations, but her women are more complex than mere victims. Add solid songwriting to the list of CJ virtues. How about this line from "Sun Comes Up…:" Lunchtime. I start to dial your number/then I remember and reach for something to smoke/and anyways, I'd rather listen to Coltrane/than go through all that shit again. Or this one from "Misguided Angel:" Telephone's ringing but I don't answer it/'Cause everyone knows that good news always sleeps till noon.
If you can buy a better album than this one for five bucks, buy two and I'll reimburse you for the second, plus shipping. Buy this record folks. Then get out your floodlight, shine it through a glass pie plate filled with veggie oil, drop some colored water onto the surface, crank up the Junkies, turn off the room lights, swirl the pan, and groove. You can enhance your time travel by listening to songs that take down hucksters and a lot of crap that used to be dismissed as "plastic." Peace, brothers and sisters.
*Oddly, "Sweet Jane" never charted for Lou Reed, though he wrote it. It first appeared on a Velvet Underground album in 1970 and didn't make it onto the rock/pop charts because the Underground eschewed commercialism. Reed released it as a solo single in 1974, but it never cracked the top 100. Today, of course, it's an iconic Reed song, but he always claimed that the Cowboy Junkies' version was the best he ever heard.
** "Wrong Piano" was written by a sadly neglected musician, Vic Chestnutt (1964-2009), who was paralyzed in an auto accident in 1982, but continued to write and perform until his untimely death at 45.
*** On this clip, Timmins shares the song with Natalie Merchant. Wish I had been a fly on the wall for that one!