Cowboy Junkies revisit ‘Trinity Sessions’
ASPEN Up until last November, Michael Timmins had spent basically one day of his 47 years in Torontos Church of the Holy Trinity. But what a day it was.On Nov. 27,1987, Timmins, his sister Margo, his brother Peter and their mate Alan Anton turned the church into a makeshift recording studio. Everything about the venture was spare there was one microphone, and the session lasted a few hours. All of the 12 songs recorded that day were captured in a handful of takes at most.The musical result of those 14 or so hours was as sparse as the process. With Margo who had never imagined herself a performer singing in her usual hushed tones, Peter touching the drums with the lightest strokes possible, and Michael and Alan playing guitar and bass, respectively, with considerable restraint, the foursome created a masterpiece of moodiness. The album, called The Trinity Session, in effect launched the career of Cowboy Junkies and also set a template that the band would more or less follow for two decades and running.Cowboy Junkies had released an earlier album 1986s Whites Off Earth Now!! which implanted the bands languid country-tinged style on blues tunes from Robert Johnsons Crossroads to Bruce Springsteens State Trooper. But The Trinity Session, which featured versions of songs by Hank Williams and Rodgers & Hart and a hit cover of the Velvet Undergrounds Sweet Jane, made the critics and fans take notice. Despite being miles out of the late 80s mainstream of what else was happening metal (Metallicas … and Justice for All) and proto-rap (Public Enemys It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back and N.W.A.s Straight Outta Compton) The Trinity Sessions was treated as something rare and special.Its an important record, a relevant record for the industry and a lot of peoples lives, said Timmins by phone. It put us on the map. It gave us a very strong, international following. For critics, it had a lot to talk about and analyze. It captured musicians playing together, bouncing things off each other. Thats a rare thing these days, and in the late 80s, it was very rare.
The band, which performs Friday at Belly Up Aspen, also saw The Trinity Session as an accomplishment worth celebrating. Last November, they returned to the Church of the Holy Trinity the first time Michael Timmins had set foot in the building in 19 years to revisit that landmark project. As they did with the original recording, they brought some musical friends along though this time, instead of the guests being relatively anonymous harmonica and accordion players, the contributors were Ryan Adams, Natalie Merchant and Vic Cesnutt. Apart from a brief rehearsal the day before, the album new versions of the same songs that comprised the original was made in one day, each song taking a maximum of four takes. And this time, there was a film crew. It was really a celebration of the record, said Timmins, who hopes the new album, to be released with a companion DVD, will be available in the fall. We didnt want a nostalgia-fest, but something relevant. And these songs have taken on a whole different dimension, playing them for 20 years.The band, too, has advanced since November 1987. Cowboy Junkies have never consciously attempted to duplicate the success of The Trinity Session. Through another 10 or so studio albums, their sound has become more expansive, with Michael Timmins allowing his guitar to get louder and more adventurous. Until 2005s Early 21st Century Blues, a quasi-theme album of anti-war statements, they had not made a recording as heavy on cover songs as The Trinity Session had been. Timmins has become a songwriter of note, occupying roughly the same terrain dire, poetic, minimalist as the writers the band covered in the past. On Early 21st Century Blues, his chilling December Skies sits comfortably alongside songs by Springsteen, Bob Dylan and John Lennon.Cowboy Junkies latest album, released in April, is At the End of Paths Taken. It is probably the most sonically dense album they have made. Michaels guitar rings with occasional dissonance, Peter sometimes pounds the drums, and Margo opens up her voice without losing the familiar dark, intimate tones. Several songs employ a string quartet, used to an edgy effect.The album opens with the lines Mouths to feed / Shoes to buy from the song Brand New World, and thoughts of family continue to dominate on My Little Basquiat, Blue Eyed Saviour and Follower 2. Juxtaposed with the original Trinity Session, At the End of Paths Taken is both a logical extension and a vast departure. Linking the two is a sharp focus on lifes heavy issues despair, loneliness.We have a great respect for communicating through art, said Timmins. You have a respect for it, and when youre doing your own expression, you want to pick issues that are worthy of the effort. You want to deal with weighty issues, not fluffy things. Its out of respect for what art can do for a persons soul.Cowboy Junkies have also commemorated their 20th anniversary as a band in print. XX is a journal of band photos, lyrics and notes, accompanied by watercolors one for each song by artist/poet Enrique Martnez Celaya. (Celaya was honored with the National Artist Award at Anderson Ranch Arts Centers Annual Recognition Dinner last night, and he has an exhibit showing currently at the Baldwin Gallery.) The book is as serious of purpose as the music; the cover photo is a black-and-white image of Margo, eyes wide and black, covered with a blanket as though shielding herself from a tough world.All that said, Cowboy Junkies are capable of brief instances of lightness. Someday Soon, from At the End of Paths Taken, is hopeful in its lyrics, and feathery in sound, built on Margo and Michaels entwined vocals and acoustic guitar. Both Margo and Michael say that the music is more a reflection of their tastes than their personalities. We like to sit down and watch a baseball game like everyone else, said Michael.Entering the Church of the Holy Trinity for the second time was another moment of lightness, but something beyond taking in a Blue Jays game.Walking in was interesting enough. You have a memory of it, but … , said Michael. The first time, it was just a building where you were recording. We werent taking stock of it. So the memory was fuzzy.But the first thing that struck us was how beautiful the sound was right away. Thats why the record is so good. You just wanted to play.The Cowboy Junkies play Belly Up Aspen on Friday, July 13 with Gary Jules opening at 9 p.m. Tickets are $35 in advance and $40 the day of the show.Stewart Oksenhorns e-mail address is email@example.com