Sad has never sounded so good
“We don’t do happy very well,” informed Cowboy Junkies singer Margo Timmins. That’s probably true, although there was no way to test the statement Monday, Feb. 27, at the Wheeler Opera House. Cowboy Junkies, a five-piece rock band from Toronto, didn’t do “happy” at all in their Aspen debut.
Still, there is nothing morose about the way the Junkies do their various shades of sad. There is a beauty in the way Timmins’ hushed voice becomes a vehicle for songs that require tones of melancholy and even desperation – blues, old-time country, protest tunes. Timmins’ brother Mike never once stood from his chair, preferring to lean over his array of guitars. But his guitars spoke volumes, with scratchy, spare solos suggesting angst and even anger. Between songs, Margo lightened the mood considerably, offering a story about having skied earlier in the day in sweat pants.The show drew much from last year’s “Early 21st Century Blues,” a loosely focused, anti-war album built on other people’ songs. Often, the Junkies drained more meaning from the songs than the original artist. Behind the Junkies’ patient groove, Bob Dylan’s “License to Kill” became both a plea and an accusation; U2’s “One” was stripped to its spiritual bones. “You’re Missing,” one of two obscure Bruce Springsteen covers, spoke to the essence of longing for another person. And when the band played its own material, it only got more intense: Mike Timmins’ “December Skies” – from its opening line about “bodies falling” to its chorus of “Let’s kill our children and sing about it” – offered the chill of the night. Even a song as downbeat as Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” was turned down another notch, to good effect.
Even after 20 years, Cowboy Junkies don’t seem to have had their fill of the slow and sorrowful. Margo introduced Joni Mitchell’s “River” by noting she’d been looking forward to covering the song for a long time; she then dug into the lyrics, “I made my baby cry.”
Cowboy Junkies don’t do happy. But they do sad, desperate, lonely and weary so well, and with so many variations, that they never will.
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