Cowboy Junkies hope to cast spell at Plaza MusicFest on Saturday

The Cowboy Junkies will headline Saturday's free-admission Plaza MusicFest in Albany. Jukebox column
The Cowboy Junkies
The Cowboy Junkies

Categories: Life & Arts

Space — the size and shape of space — has always shaped the Cowboy Junkies’ spectral sound, with space, for thought, between the notes.

Their cramped Toronto garage/rehearsal space encouraged them to play quietly, as did neighbors and police. Recording “The Trinity Session” in the acoustically warm space of Toronto’s Trinity Church expanded their sound to star-size in 1987, paradoxically allowing them to play in such grungy, loud spaces as Albany’s QE2.

Returning to Trinity Church 20 years after their landmark album, they recently re-recorded its songs and filmed the performances for the DVD that accompanies the new “Trinity Revisited,” playing in a circular space that encloses the viewer. On Saturday, they will play in a very different space: Albany’s vast Empire State Plaza at the daylong, free-admission Plaza MusicFest.

“We’ll be playing some of the Trinity songs for sure,” predicted Cowboy Junkies’ guitarist and main songwriter Michael Timmins last week by phone from Toronto. The band has played those songs occasionally ever since, yet had forgotten how they sounded in the church until they returned. “Literally from the first couple of notes playing in there, it all came flooding back,” he said. “It’s an inspiring, inspiring sound,” he said, perfect to celebrate the original.

The Plaza MusicFest

WHERE: Empire State Plaza, Albany

WHEN: The Ramblin Jug Stompers at 2 p.m., Rocky Velvet at 3:15 p.m., Gandalf Murphy and the Slambovian Circus of Dreams at 5 p.m.: the Mother Truckers at 7 p.m. and Cowboy Junkies at 8:45 p.m.

HOW MUCH: Free

MORE INFO: 877-659-4ESP or www.empirestateplaza.org

“We decided to invite some friends and guests [Ryan Adams, Natalie Merchant and Vic Chesnutt] and re-approach those songs 20 years later and see what energy the guests bring.” They invited artists they admired and who admired their original “Trinity Session” album.

They had never met Adams, for example, but knew from interviews that he saw the album as crucial to his coming of age as a musician. Merchant was an old friend and inspiration. “When we were just starting out, [Merchant’s band] 10,000 Maniacs would come through Toronto quite a bit and we used to go see them all the time. Margo [Tiimmins] would really study Natalie,” said Timmins, referring to his sister, who is the band’s lead singer. Touring at times with Chesnutt, they found that “Vic has such a unique style and way of approaching music. So he was an obvious choice.”

Feeling it out

But would it work, would the pieces fit? “We admired their work and we knew that they had respect for what we did,” Timmins said. “But we didn’t know how the three of them would fit in individually or as a group.” Trusting their mutual admiration and their experience, they barely rehearsed one night, then recorded the next.

“We had to push them a bit,” Timmins recalled. “We want you to step up and put a bit more of your personality in there.” He continued: “They were almost too deferential at times but once we got them singing and performing, then it flowed really, really naturally and easily.”

Some of that natural ease stems from the expertise of film producers Francois and Pierre Lamoureux. “They’re musicians, too; so they understood the music,” Timmins said. “They were very aware of making sure the cameras were not part of the music. They formed us in a circle, and they kept all the cameras on the outside.” This draws the viewer inside that circle, surrounded by the band. You can see how the songs formed from shared intuitive knowledge and how the players listen to, enjoy, acknowledge and play off each other.

“It all comes down to listening to the other musicians and how they’re expressing themselves and trying to complement that or feel your way into it,” said Timmins, neatly describing how the band formed and found its sound.

Inspired by Neil Young’s proto-punk noise, then by the sparseness of bluesmen Lightnin’ Hopkins and John Lee Hooker, guitarist Timmins and bassist Alan Anton, with a similarly skeletal approach, had played together in bands since 1979, learning together. “For Peter [Timmins] and Margo, this is their first band,” said Timmins. (Peter, his brother, is the drummer.) “So they developed their style around us, and the four of us in many ways really developed as a unit; that’s really and truly how we learned our instruments.”

Apart from police interruptions in their rehearsal space, their quietness came from Margo. “She felt more comfortable with a quieter approach to her voice and in order for us to hear her and go with her voice, that influenced us,” said Timmins.

Choice notes

Their sparseness came from bluesmen such as Hopkins and Hooker “who use very few notes,” as he said. “Every note they choose has personality to it.”

The musical personality that the original “Trinity Session” introduced to the world in 1988 is often quiet, slow and sparse, but it allowed them to give up their day jobs (Timmins used the band’s van for courier runs) to tour rock clubs, including QE2. “That was a jam, jam-packed show,” said Timmins. “After ‘Trinity’ exploded, that was one of our first major club dates in the States where it was absolutely insanely packed.”

Empire State Plaza should be packed on Saturday, too, for the five-act free Plaza Music Fest, near the cozy Egg where Cowboy Junkies played their most recent local show several years ago. Some outdoor shows can feel like a Toronto church, but Timmins knows that most don’t.

“Sometimes those shows are very beautiful,” he mused. “If it’s a nice night and people are sitting there quietly and they’re there to listen to music, then you can cast a certain spell.” However, he realistically acknowledged, “If it’s a certain type of crowd, we might not try and cast a spell.” He said: “We might just kind of rock out and have fun. We can push our music in a lot of different directions; there’s a lot of stuff in our repertoire that, if we need to rock out, we can rock out. We just feel the evening out.”

The schedule for Saturday’s Plaza MusicFest is:

2 p.m.: The Ramblin Jug Stompers

3:15 p.m.: Rocky Velvet

5 p.m.: Gandalf Murphy and the Slambovian Circus of Dreams

7 p.m.: the Mother Truckers

8:45 p.m.: Cowboy Junkies.

Music haven

Tabou Combo — who have fired up Caribbean dance mania around the world since 1968 — brings Haitian big band grooves to Music Haven (Central Park, Schenectady) on Sunday at 7 p.m. Need more free music after the Plaza Music Fest on Saturday? This is it: joyous, rhythmic and uplifting and powerful.

For more information, phone 382-5152 or visit www.musichavenstage.org.

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