We don’t write the happiest songs in the world… like most Cowboy Junkies songs, if you’re trying to find the happiness in them you gotta work at it. It’s kind of like life that way.
— Margo Timmins
In 1989 I saw the Cowboy Junkies at a nightclub in Cleveland. They were touring behind their major label debut, The Trinity Session. I have recounted that concert experience to countless friends over the years: The audience was scattered throughout the tiny room—sitting cross-legged on the small dance floor and at the tables scattered about the perimeter. When it was time for the Junkies to take the stage (a riser not more that a foot above the dance floor), a side table was brought out, a piece of lace and a vase of roses were placed on it, and a barstool set beside it. Margo Timmins shimmered in the smoky dim light. It was a moody evening—in my mind there were candles on the stage, but I don’t know that even then someone could get away with an open flame in that setting. Someone called out his love for her midway through the set—we were all feeling that way. Obviously uncomfortable, she blushed. I think she gave the guy one of the roses from the stage.
Long Journey Home was recorded in 2004 at the Liverpool Philharmonic Hall in England. And it thrilled me to find the Cowboy Junkies taking to a dark and bare stage, with the exception of oriental rugs under the performers and a side table with flowers next to Margo. Now obviously comfortable with their place in the music world, the Junkies are old friends. And, in spite of falling off the wagon—The Trinity Session is the only Junkies album that I regularly listen to—I felt right at home when the concert captured here began.
What has changed in the subsequent years is the confidence of a band whose lineup has remained consistent. Where Margo would once demur, uncomfortable with her role in front, she is now visibly and audibly more sure of herself. She still hides under a barely-tamed mop of hair, but her vocals are much stronger than they were years ago. Her vocal work now includes scat singing which matches her brother Michael Timmins’ guitar growth. Beautifully illustrated on Robert Johnson’s “32-20 Blues”, the band peaks with Michael’s orchestrated solos and the strong rhythm section of brother Peter Timmins and long-time friend Alan Anton. They are complemented by extended “family” members Jeff Bird and Jaro Czerwinec. Bird’s harmonica and Czerwinec’s stretching accordion work combine for a stirring intro to “I Don’t Get It”. The bluesy tempo is enough to get Margo off her stool and fires some animation in her delivery.
What makes a Junkies experience is the storytelling: It’s a combination of the type of music they play, the songs they interpret, and Margo’s snippet-sized intros to the performances. The introduction to “Sun Comes Up It’s Tuesday Morning” begins with a truism of the Junkies approach: “This next song is about breaking up with somebody, and believe it or not it’s the happiest song of our set this evening.” Margo continues to frame the song perfectly with the back-story of the precise point in the breakup the song details. With that information, the richness of the story is even more beautiful. And when she tells the crowd simply: “This is off the new album [One Soul Now], it’s called ‘He Will Call You Baby’, which isn’t always a good thing,” nothing more needs to be said, because that encapsulates everything the Junkies’ world is about.
The strengths in this performance are the powerful Trinity Session opener and closer: Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane” and the Junkies’ own “Misguided Angel”. Also providing weight are “‘Cause Cheap is How I Feel”, “200 More Miles”, and Neil Young’s “Helpless”.
Pulling from roots rock, country, blues, and alt-rock, the Timmins siblings and Anton have never strayed far from their signature slow heartbeat pace. Their sound is as much a mood as it is a genre. Michael’s songwriting has grown and matured from the simple nakedness of “I Don’t Get It” to the middle-aged questioning of “The Slide”.
There is a nice set of extras to complement the 18-song DVD. The soundcheck is interspersed with comments from the Junkies’ production manager. The band is broken up into pairs for interview, “Mike & Margo”, “Jaro & Jeff”, and “Alan & Pete”. Michael’s comments offer a refreshingly pragmatic look into the business of music, which is interesting coming from the creative force behind the group. Jaro and Jeff are portrayed as likeable guys who enjoy what they do and appreciate their good fortune. Alan and Peter, on the other hand, come off a bit prickish, rarely giving interviewer Craig Ferguson a straight answer. Mastered in widescreen format and with a strong 5.1 surround option, the DVD is a moving, engaging letter from old friends. The other extra is the accompanying CD that pulls together 11 of the 18 live tracks found on the video portion, although in a different running order.
Long Journey Home is a time capsule for a band that seems to remain timeless. I fell in love with Margo Timmins 17 year ago. Now we’re both older, and I’ve fallen all over again.