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Cowboy Junkies bring emotional Reckoning to Milwaukee

A packed Turner Hall crowd got an aural group hug

Photos by: Brooke Billick

When you think of bands with a cult following, usually names like Grateful Dead and Phish come to mind. Hardly does one think of Canadian rock/blues/folk outfit Cowboy Junkies. Yet, having formed nearly 35 years ago, this collaboration of siblings Margo Timmins (vocals), Michael Timmins (songwriter/guitarist), Peter Timmins (drums), and family friend Alan Anton (bassist) have created just that — a fanbase so devout they’ll come from far and wide to experience the communal feeling that comes with a Cowboy Junkies show.

While their debut record, Whites Off Earth Now! was officially released in 1986, it was their second album, The Trinity Session (1987), that is generally credited with their launch to stardom. The raw recording, done entirely in one take from inside Toronto’s Church of the Holy Trinity, features what is still their most widely-known hit, a cover of Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane.”

Yet, said Lou-Reed-penned song is a mere footnote in the Cowboy Junkies’ extensive catalog of originals for the devoted fans.  The majority of CJ’s songs are composed by guitarist Michael Timmins, however, Margo has lent her hand in collaboration with her brother on many hits, including “Misguided Angel” and the heavy-hearted murder ballad “To Love is to Bury,” both on The Trinity Session.

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It was with the confidence in their fanbase’s enthusiasm of their originals that Cowboy Junkies opened their show on April 12th at Milwaukee’s Turner Hall Ballroom with the soft and ominous tone of the introduction song on their latest album, All that Reckoning, aptly titled, “All That Reckoning, Part 1.” While the majority of songs in CJ’s repertoire could easily be considered dark, All that Reckoning seems even more so than their previous work. (This should not come as surprising, however, as the band used to joke that their happiest song was about a breakup.)

From there, the Junkies quickly transitioned into an energetic “Sing Me a Song,” an insistent anthem about choosing to be happy despite life’s troubling circumstances:

“She veiled her days in pale hues of gray

The brightness of her children an undoing

She spent all her days in a cold burning rage

The brightness of her children was galling

Unburden your hearts, let loose your fear

Sing me a song of forgiveness

Make a fresh start, face all your fears

Sing me a song of forgiveness”

When it was over, the band took a breather and Margo spoke to the audience for the first time of the evening, saying, “Whew! After that song, I’m always exhausted!” She then went on to tell the audience that the show would be split into two sets — the first set would be mostly songs from All That Reckoning, which they were touring to promote, and the second set would be comprised of older, more familiar songs. She joked, “Don’t worry, we’ll get to the older stuff we know you want to hear, this first set is really short!”

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Given the caliber of the tracks on the new album, however, nobody minded at all. To have a full show of both brand new music and old favorites in two full sets was a treat for both the devoted and casual fans of Cowboy Junkies. (The former are affectionately known as “llamas,” but that’s a long story.)

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A fleeting good mood was set by an upbeat, hope-filled “Things We Do to Each Other,” though it was abruptly dampened by the dreary torch song “Wooden Stairs” that followed. To evoke such a slingshot of emotions in the span of two consecutive songs is not uncommon for the Junkies; that’s part of the overall experience of their shows that keep the llamas coming back.

They did stray from the newer material a couple times in the first set, with a jam of old favorite “Southern Rain” (from 1992’s Black Eyed Man), followed by a somber “Spiral Down” (from At the End of Paths Taken, 2007), which Margo explained to the audience they wrote about watching their 91-year-old father decline with age while he still lives at home and is feisty as ever. A song of such weight is likely a familiar paradox recognized by the core demographic of their fans.

Keeping with that vibe, CJ transitioned back to the new material with a haunting “Mountain Stream,” then picked the tempo back up with “Missing Children.”

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True to the structure of the album itself, the Junkies closed their first set by returning to “All That Reckoning” with Part Two of the song, a much heavier, angrier version than the first. While Part One was definitely foreboding, the crescendo of Part Two reached such intensity that it’s no wonder the band had to take a break for twenty minutes. The vibe of the audience definitely seemed to concur.

Set Two

After the much-needed timeout, the Junkies set the tone of their second set by going way back to 1986 with “Shining Moon,” the bluesy, low-key intro track on their debut, Whites Off Earth Now!

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A highlight of their second set was a very passionate and emotional version “I’ve Flirted With You All My Life,” written by their late friend Vic Chesnutt, that they recorded for 2011’s Demons: The Nomad Series, Vol. 2. The lyrics are a chilling reminder of one’s struggle with depression (Oh death, oh death, oh death. Really, I’m not ready….”), and unfortunately, prophetic of Chesnutt’s 2009 passing.

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Recognizing that they should pick the mood back up, CJ launched into a rocking “3rd Crusade” (from Sing in my Meadow, 2011), which quickly transformed a usually-laid-back Margo Timmins into a bona fide rock star. Standing up, mic stand in hand a la Steven Tyler, she gave more oomph into a song than anyone would ever expect from a soft-spoken Canadian woman who usually sings sweetly while sitting on a stool for most of the show.

Also incorporated into the Junkies’ second set was a cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “Rake,” one that they adopted as their own years ago.  They did insert what is arguably the favorite track on All That Reckoning into this set, a track called “Shining Teeth,” a snarky recognition of the ups and downs of long-term relationships.

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It’s honestly quite hard to describe the music of Cowboy Junkies because while they’re often cited as rock/blues/folk/jazz, one has to ask, “What exactly does that even mean?” If anything, it means that they don’t really fall into any single category, especially when you consider their song “My Little Basquiat,” which they spun with as much funk as anything by George Clinton.

No Cowboy Junkies show would be complete without their biggest hit, “Sweet Jane,” but that night, they did it much more uptempo than their usual chill version. Then, “rockstar Margo” was back with the defiant anthem “Those Final Feet.”

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Following band introductions, the Junkies closed the show with hard-rocking fan favorite “Murder Tonight in the Trailer Park” before a literal mic drop and exit stage right. (Few bands can make a situation so terrible sound so amazing.)

Encore

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A well-deserved standing ovation brought the Junkies back to the stage with another cover that they’ve successfully managed to put their own fingerprint on over time, David Bowie’s “Five Years.”  After having taken the Milwaukee audience on an adrenaline roller coaster for two and a half hours through the cavernous Turner Hall, Margo & Bros. successfully soothed the crowd into a lullaby-like “Misguided Angel” to close the night.

For nearly 35 years, the Cowboy Junkies have been defying musical expectations, bringing together a community of devout followers, and easily converting the uninitiated into die-hards after their first CJ experience. The Milwaukee show at Turner Hall was only one stop on a lifetime journey as a band and a family that they plan on continuing for years to come. After the show, I got a chance to ask Margo a few questions about the band’s past, their following, and their future, and touched upon highlights of their history such as Trinity Revisited, where they recreated The Trinity Session in the same church, but with friends. Check out the accompanying video.

 

Stacy Lukasavitz Steele is a professional copywriter, editor, and digital producer by day who has been masquerading as a music journalist by night since Lilith Fair in the 1990s. She is a former publicist and veteran of the Detroit music scene, though today she resides in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where she drinks too much coffee and is an obedient servant to two cats. She’s known to like “the folky shit,” but she’ll take a good rock, country, or blues show any day of the week. There is no greater rock goddess in her eyes than Janis Joplin. Learn more about Stacy's background in music journalism at her music archive subdomain, and read her professional bio at her company website, Text on Fire Communications.

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