The Canadian band Cowboy Junkies has never quite matched the attention it got for the 1988 album The Trinity Session, but the group never went away, either, building up a big discography over the years. The latest additions are four albums conceived as a series and released within 18 months — the “Nomad” records, each with a different theme or style, and all collected now in a boxed set, along with a fifth disc of outtakes. That’s a lot of new music for the band to perform — and for listeners to absorb.
When Cowboy Junkies played Saturday night (April 14) at SPACE in Evanston, singer Margo Timmins sounded somewhat apologetic as she explained that the band would devote the entire first set to music from the “Nomad” albums. But she promised the crowd would hear its old favorites during the second set. That turned out to be a winning strategy, giving enough focus to the new music while satisfying everyone’s desire to hear songs such as “Misguided Angel,” “Sweet Jane” and “Murder, Tonight, in the Trailer Park.” The new songs included “Wrong Piano” and “Square Room,” two selections from Demons, a “Nomad” album of songs written by the late, great Vic Chesnutt. The old songs included some audience requests that the band hand’t played in a while, including a little gem from 1992, “A Horse in the Country.”
Margo Timmins’ voice still sounded much as it did when everyone heard it for the first time in that quiet masterpiece The Trinity Session. She often draped one of her arms on the microphone stand in front of her, giving the impression of someone who was just casually hanging out on the stage rather than a performer who was the center of attention. That stance fit perfectly with the conversational tone of her singing: breathy but not whispered, confessional but not melodramatic, beautiful but completely natural.
Her brother Michael Timmins played guitar, including those insistently strummed chords that the Junkies took from inspirations like the Velvet Underground, but didn’t say a word, seeming very much like a modest sideman, despite the fact that he writes almost all of the music and words. Another sibling, drummer Peter Timmins, and bassist Alan Anton anchored the hypnotic grooves, while frequent Junkies collaborator Jeff Bird filled out the sound with percussion, harmonica and mandolin. He played the mandolin more like an electric guitar at many points, playing fiery solos. But for the most part, the band’s sound was smoldering.