We think of radical music as being loud, bombastic, in-your-face, energetic and eager to grab your attention. But in a room full of screamers, the man who whispers is king.
This is a lesson well learned by Canada's Cowboy Junkies, a group anchored by the Timmins siblings and given to flights of deceptively quiet rebellion. Thursday evening, inside a full, newly reopened Tralf, the group proved a whisper is worth at least as much as a scream.
Fronted by the subtle, graceful beauty of singer Margo Timmins, the group brought to the Tralf stage a low-key presence. This was no mellow folk show, however. The Junkies, ever since the band's emergence in the late '80s, have provided the missing link between the Velvet Underground and Hank Williams. In the process, the group has been first in line with elements of trance music, alt-country, and the bummed-out wall-of-down that eventually became '90s "stoner rock."
Hearing Margo sing, backed by her brothers Michael on guitar and Peter on drums, and supported by bassist Alan Anton and multi-instrumentalist Jeff Bird, is to be coaxed lovingly into a world that the singer joked was "slightly depressed," but lovely nonetheless.
The band hasn't been in Buffalo since a stellar 2005 set for Thursday at the Square. This time, the Junkies came with a feast of new tunes in tow, all of which were culled from a forthcoming new record, due in April.
The Tralf show was the first night of the band's world tour, and at moments, the rustiness inevitable when a group has enjoyed some downtime became apparent. The Junkies pulled through the rough spots with a smile and a wink, however, and the Tralf crowd howled its appreciation at the end of tunes it had never heard before. The group was visibly pleased with the reception granted the new material.
The word "dirge" is much maligned. It's defined as "a lament for the dead," but in the world of the Cowboy Junkies -- much as it is in New Orleans, where the deceased is treated to one helluva party -- laments for things past take on the power of profound beauty.
So the early appearance of "Murder, Tonight, in the Trailer Park" was welcomed ecstatically by the crowd, and later, a simply inspired, slowed-down, intimate take on Hank Williams' expression of existential remorse "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" was met with a blend of reverence and appreciation. No one will ever sing the song "better" than Williams did, but then, no one will ever come closer to doing so than Margo Timmins.
"Sun Comes Up, It's Tuesday Morning" is that rarest of songs treating the break-up of a romantic relationship as cause for a reinterpretation of one's life and a good excuse for celebration. Margo sang this one masterfully, and Michael's subtle accompaniment was a treat.
The song "Mountain" was another teaser for the forthcoming album, and boasted what, for the Junkies, is as likely as we're ever going to get to a "pop" chorus, so strong was its refrain hook. Bird, as he had done throughout the evening, provided brilliant support for the vocal, his distorted mandolin acting as the improvisatory solo voice in the lovely wilderness that is the Junkies' sonic landscape.
"My Wild Child" was the highlight of the evening. Margo Timmins fully inhabited this tune, and her voice was at once sexy and full of longing and regret. That's a tall order for a "post-modern" band. But the Junkies have made this particular sonic/literate space their home. Thursday, we were happy to be welcomed into it.
WHO: Cowboy Junkies
WHEN: Thursday night
WHERE: Tralf Music Hall