Angel's wings

Cowboy Junkies drone and moan toward brilliance

Margo Timmins stands on the edge of the Los Angeles Wiltern Theater stage, her arm draped over the microphone stand. She buries her head in her arm, looking like she can barely breathe, much less continue with the show. To her right, brother Michael, himself with eyes so sleepy he appears to be barely conscious, sits on a chair with his guitar in his lap. The two barely move, even when the music kicks in and starts to swell.

A Cowboy Junkies show always lingers in that middle ground separating dull from dreamy; you can't tell if you're being bored to sleep or lulled into a reverie, and it doesn't make much difference in the end. This is music that's intemperately quiet, turbulent but placid--a wind storm that doesn't kick up a single speck of dust. No one ever tells the Cowboys Junkies to keep it down.

For about 90 minutes, the Junkies whisper their brand of rock and roll in front of an L.A. crowd teetering between restless and riotous. "'Sweet Jane,'" comes the cry from one woman sitting in the audience, demanding the band perform its version of the Velvet Underground classic that launched the Junkies toward underground pop success. "'Sweet Jane!'"

Margo smiles to the woman: "We're gonna play it at the end. Don't worry."
During a break between songs, Margo tells the audience she is often asked by interviewers whether she is a "star." With a slight laugh, Timmins recounts a story about the time someone set her straight about her status in the music business.

One day she was on her way to perform on The Tonight Show, and she was spread out in the back of a limousine all by herself. As Margo tells it, she asked the driver if she could use the car phone to make a call--"a local call," she stresses. The driver told her he would check, and he called the garage to make sure it was all right. "Is it a Cowboy Junkie?" the dispatcher asked the driver. "Yes," came the reply. "Then tell her no, she can't use the phone."

"When they let me use the phone," Timmins tells the amused crowd, "then I'll know I'm a star." And then the band launches into "A Common Disaster" off the new Lay it Down--ironically enough the very record that could turn the Junkies into the stars they should have become after the release of 1988's The Trinity Session. "Disaster," the sort of laconic and ambient country-rocker the Junkies can write and record in their sleep (and probably do), is getting played on modern-rock stations that have ignored the band for years; it joins Tracy Chapman's "Give Me One Reason" as the surprise hit on stations like the Edge (KDGE-FM), and it has landed at the No. 20 slot on Billboard's modern-rock charts--above the likes of the Cure and Paul Westerberg.

There's no reason "A Common Disaster" should get played on the radio now; it's not filled with mall-teen angst, it doesn't rock with plastic guitars, and it's smart--a love song that happily equates a relationship with a fiasco. Yet somehow, there it is on the radio, and there they are on a Starplex stage June 2 playing a free show with the likes of Deep Blue Something and Jars of Clay. War criminals deserve better.

The Junkies should have had their moment in 1988, when they crossed the border from Canada possessing a passport marked "The Trinity Session." That album, originally an indie release, later picked up by RCA Records, was one of those once-in-a-lifetime debuts (granted, it was a second album, but Whites Off Earth Now! didn't get U.S. distribution till Trinity was already a hit) that sounded like nothing before it. It pieced together the Velvet Underground and Patsy Cline: Margo droned on in a languid whisper, Michael filled in the spaces with a piercing guitar sound, Alan Anton pulsed out a quiet heartbeat bass rhythm, and Peter Timmins brushed his sticks against the drums until they sounded like a hiss.

The Cowboy Junkies of Trinity Session would go on to influence myriad successors--Gillian Welch gives the drone an Appalachian twang, and the Junkies should sue Mojave 3 for copyright violation--but they possessed their own unique sound. Trinity comes across solemn and exquisite, delicate and tough, a roots record recorded live-to-two-track in a church; and, ultimately, it couldn't decide if it wanted to be country or rock so it wound up being neither. The Hank Williams and Patsy Cline references were just there to throw you off, the Lou Reed homage was too obvious, and the miners' song was too precocious. But the whole package was just sublime enough to overcome its sad gloom ("Misguided Angel" says it all), and it wound up sounding like the devil asking an angel to slow dance.

If Trinity Session was the beginning of a bright future, successive releases proved that stardom is a tenuous thrill. To a record-buying public seeking imitation instead of growth, it apparently didn't matter that such albums as Black Eyed Man in 1992 and Pale Sun Crescent Moon the following year dug deeper and stretched further; as Margo tried to "sing" with varying degrees of success, and Michael proved himself the deliberate, if often diffuse, storyteller, the records started selling worse and worse. Last year's live 200 More Miles--a double-disc best-of that the Junkies used to fulfill their contract with RCA--sold about 40,000 copies, an embarrassing amount for a band with major-label support.

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