Margo Timmins knows her ghosts.
The Cowboy Junkies singer is clearly intimate with a bunch of them – the ghosts of Roy Orbison, Hank Williams, Patsy Cline. Maybe even the ghost of actor Dennis Hopper, or at least the character he played in David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet,” the one who delivered the most deliciously creepy take on Orbison’s “In Dreams,” like, ever.
Yes, Timmins knows her ghosts, and with the able assistance of her brothers Michael (guitar) and Peter (drums), plus longtime family friend Alan Anton on bass and Jeff Bird on mandolin and harmonica, she summons them into the room during a concert performance, there to roam freely amongst band member and audience alike.
Thursday’s Cowboy Junkies show in Kleinhans Music Hall felt more like an open, inviting and friendly séance than it did a regular old rock show.
Which is not to suggest that the band is simply exhuming the past.
Rather, Cowboy Junkies pull the rich tradition of country, folk and primal blues from the soft earth, and make it their own by running it through an achingly heartbeat-paced psychedelia.
The Mary Seaton Room at Kleinhans is not often used for music that doesn’t fit beneath the classical umbrella. That’s a shame, because it is a beautiful-sounding room, and more than well-suited to the more intimate, subdued variety of rock shows. Cowboy Junkies fits this bill more than ably. The band offered a breathtakingly intimate brand of twilit, deep-hued music, moving gracefully from a whisper to an implied scream, without ever becoming unnecessarily loud. We heard every nuance, every subtle dynamic shift, every brushstroke on the snare drum, and nearly every breath singer Margo drew.
That the band was celebrating the 25th anniversary of the album that made its name internationally – 1988’s “The Trinity Session” – in full during the show made the event that much sweeter.
The Junkies would indeed play that full album for the packed and appreciative house, but first came a full set of newer songs, culled from the band’s more recent “Nomad” series of releases.
The Junkies arrived onstage casually, with Margo flanked by a vase of fresh flowers, and her brother Michael hunched over his guitar in his usual pose, eyes closed, head bobbing in perfect rhythm to his brother Peter’s subtle timekeeping behind the drum kit.
“See You Around” started things off with a bit of an acid tongue from Margo, but the supple, incredibly laidback feel provided by the band transformed the biting lyric into more lament than accusation.
“Late Night Radio” afforded Bird the opportunity to present one of the many stunning solos of the evening. Playing mandolin through a distorted guitar amplifier with judiciously employed effects, Bird walked the wire between acid blues and Appalachian melancholy with his stellar soloing.
Margo dropped hints throughout the first part of the evening that she was nervous about the second set take on “The Trinity Session,” particularly the a capella opener “Mining For Gold,” a very difficult song to sing. After a brief intermission, she came back and absolutely killed that number – completely on pitch, and fully emotionally invested.
“Mining” led directly into my vote for the Junkies’ most powerful tune in the whole catalog, the hair-raising love song “Misguided Angel.” It’s this tune that proves the Junkies more than worthy to share the space occupied by the greatest roots songwriters of all, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers among them. Yup. There’s those ghosts again.