Toronto, Canada – A handful of bands throughout the years scream “Canadiana”. These bands didn’t specifically make a huge mark internationally, but here in Canada, they are held in very high regard. A few that easily come to mind would be The Tragically Hip, 54-40, and Stompin’ Tom Connors. Another band that can be added to this list are Toronto’s Cowboy Junkies.
Cowboy Junkies are a family dynamic, featuring siblings Margo Timmins (vocals), Michael Timmins (guitar) and Peter Timmins (drums), flanked by bassist Alan Anton and multi-instrumentalist Jeff Bird. In 1986, after meeting production engineer Peter Moore, the band turned their garage rehearsal space into a recording studio and recorded their first album Whites Off Earth Now!! It was released in October of that year.
It’s clear that so many bands just never get that foot hold on their careers, but with continuously writing great songs, and releasing great albums (21 thus far) over 35 plus years, Cowboy Junkies have made a huge mark in the Canadian music landscape. Fortunately, the music doesn’t just stop at the Canadian borders, as the band has consistently toured the world, and it’s no different in 2023. With the release of their most recent album Such Ferocious Beauty, several Australian, US, and Canadian cities spent an evening with these Canadian stalwarts, and I was honored to share the evening with the band during their show here in Toronto.
With the band having graced us with their presence for 37 years, it’s no surprise that their fan demographic is a much more mature crowd. What was a little surprising to me though was, as I lined up outside the Danforth Music Hall for the 7:00pm doors, there seemed to be a ton of confusion from the fans as to the show time. It was clearly posted on the venue’s website and outside the venue. The doors would open at 7:00, yet a lot of people were wondering why they couldn’t get in earlier. And then a lot of complaints as to why they were unable to get in sooner. I chuckled to myself, commented to one couple that this happens at every single show I have ever been to, and added that I was confused at everybody else’s confusion. It did however, allow a great opportunity to chat with some folks ahead of the show, which is always a rewarding experience.
With no opening act on this evening’s bill, Cowboy Junkies were to perform 2 sets. At 8:00pm, the schedule was to play an opening 40-minute set, and then at 9:00pm, an 80-minute set to close out the evening. Another oddity for me was the seats that filled the typical general admission standing room floor section at the Danforth Music Hall. I must say, it gave a completely different aesthetic for the venue, and it’s one that I actually really liked.
A vase of flowers dresses a table at the front of stage, just to the right of a chair and a music notes stand. The band appears on queue at 8:00 and opens the show with “What I Lost”, the opening track from their newest album. The atmosphere on the stage is very moody, a slight fog wafts around the players, and the purple and magenta hues provide a very dimly lit, sombre theme. It is immediately noticed that Margo’s distinctive voice has not lost any of its brilliance, and musically, the band sounds great.
The singer is quick to converse with the crowd, explaining that the brief first set will be a collection of tracks from their most recent work, and the second set will feature songs from their vast catalogue. With this show originally having been scheduled for October 3, 2023, a Covid breakout amongst the band required them to have to postpone. She raises a great point in saying that she hates having to reschedule, because some fans who had tickets for the original date may be unable to attend the rescheduled date, and for that, she apologizes.
Throughout the first set, guitarist Michael Timmins is completely in the zone, in his typical seated position, his head is down, and he is feeling the music. This opening set sounds fantastic. The guitar is real, the vocals are smooth and full of range, and the beat is alive yet subdued. There’s some real groove on the band’s 4th track “Hard to Build. Easy to Break”. The set makes me think of some other long running musicians and how they sometimes just never find that same great sound that made them famous, yet here, this opening set is fantastic and clearly highlights the band’s talents.
After a bit of a longer intermission, the band reappears at 9:19pm for the start of the second half of the evening with the gentler, albeit haunting “All That Reckoning (Part 1)”. As the track progresses, the crescendos get quite loud, but the crowd is unphased, as they are engrossed with the music emanating from the stage. The band transitions into the dancey-er “A Common Disaster” that sees Margo grooving in her place as she alternates from a seated position to a standing position. An explosion of guitar frenzy from Michael gets a roar from the crowd, as the band continues strong, in line with their first set.
A few songs into the 2nd set of the evening, drummer Peter Timmins, and bassist Alan Anton depart the stage, setting the scene for a three-song acoustic set that is kicked off with the Townes van Zandt track “Rake”, which Margo shares is a track about time passing by. And she’s quite funny throughout the whole show throwing out zingers. Here she uses an example of time passing her by, saying how she can feel great one day and then pass by a mirror and see her mother staring back at her. It brings a laugh from the crowd. After this one, Margo continues with her story telling, sharing about the family’s roots in Montreal where they were born and then moving to Toronto in 1976 while they were in their last year of high school. She talks about going to the iconic “Sam the Record Man” in downtown Toronto which brings an enormous applause, and they’d go home with armfuls of records, just sit and listen, and read the liner notes. The thing she loved best was when the inner sleeve contained handwritten lyrics. It resonates hard with me. It’s still a pastime I love to this day, albeit Sam the Record Man is no longer.
This show was such a great mix of new songs and old, upbeat tempos and acoustic renderings, and fully utilized the band’s catalogue. After “Sun Comes Up, It’s Tuesday Morning”, Margo shares some more insight saying that she used to worry that the band’s songs were depressing the audience, and throws out some more comedy stating, “Now, I don’t care”. She does say that the next track “Just Want to See” was a sad break-up song, but she made it happy at the end because they actually ended up breaking up. It brings more laughs from the fans.
This show was the last show for the band in 2023, but they’ll be heading back out in February 2024. They are looking forward to the bit of a break, but not before they conclude this show. During the band’s encore, Margo shares the sad news that the aforementioned music producer Peter Moore that got the band their start passed away a few weeks ago (on November 11) at the tender age of 67. The band feels forever indebted as without him, they would not have had music careers. Margo performs a tribute to Moore, with the solo vocal of “Mining For Gold”. Her angelic voice garners a huge applause and the band then transitions to possibly their most recognized song “Misguided Angel”, followed by “Walking After Midnight” to close out a fantastic Evening With Cowboy Junkies!
At this juncture, I am unable to think of anything that could have made this a more enjoyable one.
What I Lost
Sweet Jane – The Velvet Underground cover
Hell Is Real
Hard to Build. Easy to Break
Circe and Penelope
Don’t Let It Bring You Down – Neil Young cover
All That Reckoning (Part 1)
A Common Disaster
Rake – Townes van Zandt cover (Acoustic)
Shadows 2 (Acoustic)
Blue Skies (Acoustic)
Sun Comes Up, It’s Tuesday Morning
Just Want to See
Bea’s Song (River Song Trilogy: Part II)
Where Are You Tonight?
Murder, Tonight in the Trailer Park
Blue Moon Revisited (Song for Elvis)
Mining for Gold
Walking After Midnight
Show Date: November 22, 2023