The Plaza Theatre, Orlando, FL • February 11, 2009
On cold winter nights I like to curl up with Margo Timmins’ voice. The Cowboy Junkies vocalist has a sultry siren living deep within her soul, and the songs she sings could melt the snow off the back of a blizzard. At once heartbreaking and soothing, it is she who breathes an untouchable ache into her brother Michael Timmins’ gifted songwriting, and makes Cowboy Junkies stand apart as a musical genre all their own.
After spending much of 2007 and 2008 on tour supporting both their most recent album of new material,At The End Of Paths Taken, and Trinity Revisited, a 20th anniversary revisiting of the band’s debut disc with guest stars like Natalie Merchant and Ryan Adams along for the ride, the band has been taking a much earned break before heading back into the studio to whip up their next release. Antsy, as musicians are prone to be, they decided to venture south — out of the cold white North — and do a short tour that mercifully included a stop in Orlando.
The Plaza Theatre was built as a movie theatre in 1963, but has recently gone through some major renovations and been reborn as an intimate, seated entertainment venue that welcomes all things musical and theatrical. Popcorn is still sold in the lobby, and ushers guide guests to their plush seats only moments before the lights are set to dim. It all feels so very yesteryear. It’s gorgeous. What a way to experience a band as quietly snug as Cowboy Junkies. Finding my seat — in the front row, no less — I just knew that I was in for a treat.
Seated with his guitar, turned away from the audience like a shy little child, Michael Timmins began strumming out the open notes of “Lay It Down” as drummer (and little brother to both Michael and Margo) Peter Timmins, bassist Alan Anton, and guest multi-instrumentalist Jeff Bird took their places on the blue-lit stage. Walking out to large applause, Margo took her seat at the microphone, behind a large vase of white flowers, and ushered us all into a world of midnight kisses and candlelit conversations.
As a live band, few can match their studio sound like this Canadian quartet. What surprises me most about hearing these intensely intimate compositions performed live is how they seem to expand in the theater and lull me into a trance that I gladly sink into. It’s not a sleepy hypnosis, but an invigorating, neck-tingling electrical feeling that captivates as it takes over. “A Common Disaster,” “Misguided Angel,” and “Hold On” practically knock me out of my chair and “Crescent Moon” causes my chin to quiver.
It’s appropriate that one of the band’s most famous singles is a cover of Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane” because, like Reed, Timmins’ song arrangements like to ride the air and stir up unexpected sounds — like when he throws a little distortion into a mandolin part. There’s an eerie desert sadness beneath the song’s foundations that usually only artists like Reed or Leonard Cohen can tap into so effortlessly.
These are songs I grew up listening to, in the early morning hours alone in my bedroom with an open journal and an open flame as my only companions. I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me these songs have always felt like private thoughts that liked to swim around inside my head where no one else could find them. Bouncing off the walls of this dark, decades old theatre they took on a brand new life for me.
In between songs the adorably demure Margo speaks candidly, telling stories about being a 48-year-old mom on tour, about relying on a book of lyrics to remember songs she should know backwards and forward, and dedicating moments in the night to fans whose stories touched her. Like a more earthly Tori Amos, Margo Timmins tells these stories in between sips of tea.
After 90 minutes or so, the band takes their bow before a now standing and tirelessly applauding audience. An encore of “Still Lost” comes as a reward for the crowd’s kindness. For those willing to stick around — and there were many of us not yet willing to let the evening end — the female Timmins spent time with her fans in the theatre’s lobby after the set. “The best way to say thanks is to do it face to face,” she said.
To see more photos of this show, and others, go to www.jencray.com.
Cowboy Junkies: www.cowboyjunkies.com