In today's digital world, the Internet gets deluged with a flood of songs each week by artists hoping to distinguish themselves amidst the onslaught of new music. Many stand out by being louder or brasher than their contemporaries, others, especially British chanteuses, score major interest by being boozier, cruder and more outrageous than the "lady" to their right. Instead of moving quicker and faster than the rest, The Cowboy Junkies have always played the tortoise to every one else's hare, seducing listeners for two decades with their alluring near somnambulistic pacing and Margo Timmins' ethereal vocals.
In support of their latest release, At The Ends Of Paths Taken, the Timmins clan returned to The Concert Hall at New York Society for Ethical Culture, one of Lincoln Center's many intimate performance spaces. The cozy room, which has cushioned pews in lieu of traditional seating, provides a reverent atmosphere and inspires a respectful silence that perfectly suits the deliberateness of the Junkies.
Accompanied by Michael Timmins and Jeff Bird, Margo Timmins opened the show with an acoustic set that suited the surroundings. With her brother on acoustic guitar and Bird rotating through a series of low-key instruments, Timmins draped her forearms around the microphone stand and let her dreamy voice glide over the crowd. The relatively brief opening set, featuring "Cutting Board Blues," "Anniversary Song" and Townes Van Zandt's "Rake," hearkened back to their Trinity Session days. A larger venue would have swallowed the set's sparse delicacy; the Ethical Culture Concert Hall seemed custom made for Timmins' inviting vocals which resonated dolefully throughout the room drawing people in.
When compared to their 1988 debut, the leisurely pacing on Paths Taken sounds downright hardcore. Even so, the electric second set, in which bassist Alan Anton and drummer Peter Timmons finally appeared, hardly proved overpowering, finding a comfortable pace and remaining true to it. Although Michael Timmons remained rooted to his chair, the music roamed nicely, especially during "Follower2" and "Brand New World." When Margo walked off stage during the set-closing version of "Blue Guitar," the Junkies seemed to channel the headiness of The Doors.
Speaking with a slight Canadian lilt to her voice, Timmins' stage banter seemed a bit out of synch with a band celebrating their 20th anniversary. Her stories of the band seemingly living from hand to mouth may be supported by her overpushing of the merchandise available in the lobby. Timmins' calming voice softened the hard sell but nearly conveyed a puzzling sense of desperation. They are in touch with their fans, above and beyond the degree of many other bands. Something that surely factors into their enduring career. Over the course of the night, Timmins mentioned various audience members whom she knew were celebrating anniversaries, indeed dedicating "Anniversary Song" to one such couple.
Despite calls from the crowd, the Junkies forewent their distinctive cover of the Velvet Underground's "Sweet Jane," choosing instead to close the show with their threadbare rendering of Neil Young's "Powderfinger." In stripping the Crazy Horse classic to the core, they distilled the song to its very essence, transforming it into an even more haunting elegy of lost innocence. The mournful lyrics of one man's struggle against seemingly insurmountable odds may be a metaphor for the Junkies' career. However, with lo-fi bands like Grizzly Bear drawing raves by slowing everything down to explore pensive moods, the Junkies may be simply keeping alive the fire that has sparked the present-day, psych-folk movement.