As a budding rock geek in my early college days in 1988, it was inevitable that I’d eventually hear about The Velvet Underground. But when I did, it wasn’t through some scratched up copy of one of their albums or some underground radio station or mix cassette. It was actually through a cover of one of their songs, the wildly popular “Sweet Jane.” And since it was a cover, it wasn’t even The Velvet Underground that I heard: It was the Canadian band Cowboy Junkies. Despite the fact that the band came seemingly out of nowhere, their “Sweet Jane” cover was an instant hit, gaining MTV airplay and charting in the Top 40s. My interest piqued, I started to learn more about this band as fast as I could in those pre-Internet days.
[jump] This Thursday and Friday, the Cowboy Junkies play two nights at the Great American Music Hall. After more than 30 years together, the combination of Canadian siblings Margo, Michael and Peter Timmins, as well as Alan Anton — a core quartet lineup that’s remained unchanged since forming — has been one of steadiness and persistence. Lately, they’ve also been a source of quiet, renewed interest for me.
The band’s first release was the 1986 album Whites Off Earth Now!!. As would be the case throughout their career, Cowboy Junkies showed an interest in covering other artists — nearly everything on that album was a cover of a blues standard. But instead of simply cloning or reproducing the originals, they transformed them. Margo’s voice and Michael’s guitar aimed to draw listeners in, not dominate them, and Peter’s drums and Anton’s bass set a careful pace without skull-crushing.
But it was 1988’s The Trinity Session that delivered the band to a wider audience. Recorded as a series of live performances over the course of one day in a Toronto church (from which the album’s title is derived), Trinity Session captured both their particular mix of covers, alongside similar sounding songs of their own.
Success allowed Cowboy Junkies to expand their lineup, as well as focus on creating more of their own songs. Still, they never seemed as immediately compelling to me as they had in the beginning — it could have been that “Sweet Jane” was too much of a perfect one-off or that the band simply developed more of a mainstream sound than I wanted or cared for at the time.
Every so often I would hear something from them and would enjoy it without delving too deeply — for example, 1993’s Pale Sun Crescent Moon had a fine version of Dinosaur Jr.’s “The Post.” Their gift for putting their own stamp on another’s work is a theme they’ve never fully rejected, and, while it works sometimes, their later stuff still tended to skip right by me.
But he collapse of the CD market, which led to a whole boatload of releases from the past 25 years washing up on in $1 bins, encouraged me to really delve into their work again a few years ago. I collected and fully re-discovered their catalog in a more complete sense — their own songwriting skills and various stylistic experiments stood out all the more strongly, from almost mainstream country arrangements to loud, rough performances. I wasn’t a huge fan again all of a sudden, but I gained a solid respect for them.
Two things from them have stood out for me lately. First, the band recently shared an older cover of The Cure’s “Seventeen Seconds” from more than a decade ago on their YouTube channel. Michael’s slashing guitar is an effective translation of the emotional wreck of the original song, and Margo’s vocals, in place of Robert Smith’s own distinct voice, made it more of a cooler contemplation.
Second, some years back, as part of what they’ve termed their Nomad series of albums, they released Demons, a tribute to the deceased Georgia singer/songwriter Vic Chesnutt. By delivering an album that wasn’t just a collection of reinterpretations, but an explicit homage to one musician in particular, the band showed that they could do justice to an artist in a variety of ways, while still sounding like themselves. The accompanying liner notes were earnest and touching, perhaps a reflection of their Canadianness, or that which we like to see down south as reflective of a certain idealized state.
It’s just nice to know that Cowboy Junkies are still out there. I hope they keep on their path as long as they choose, building their legacy further as they go.
Cowboy Junkies plays at the Great American Music Hall on Thursday, Jan. 21 and Friday, Jan. 22.