Lead Singer Margo Timmins and the band play against type and show
they can rock at Coach House in San Juan Capistrano
SAN JUAN CAPISTRANO - It was one of the cagiest, most startling musical
moments we're apt to see for a long while.
There was Cowboy Junkies singer Margo Timmins, a shrinking violet of
a performer so fragile and retiring that she appears most comfortable
communing with herself in an enervated, inward murmur. But, there she
was, smiling and singing with something approaching boldness as she hammered
home a famous line borrowed from Lou Reed: "Me, I'm in a rock 'n' roll
Cowboy Junkies had rendered that line before, in the subdued dream-state
cover of Reed's "Sweet Jane" that appeared on the band's 1988 breakthrough
album, "The Trinity Session". But Wednesday night at the Coach House,
Timmins and company cannily played against type and sounded a wake-up
call. They made "Sweet Jane" a declaration that they are, indeed, a rock
'n' roll band, and not just the purveyors of a preternatural hush that
they were on "Trinity".
"Sweet Jane", which turned up in the first of two encores of
a warmly received show, began cool and glistening, with a mellow, rounded
bass current that made it more like Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side" than
"Sweet Jane" he originally recorded on the Velvet Underground's
sublime 1970 album, "Loaded." But with that line, "Me,
I'm in a rock 'n' roll band," lights suddenly flashed, amps suddenly
cranked, and the band burst delightedly into the transcendently choppy
three-chord grind that defines
"Sweet Jane." They rocked that riff for all it was worth -
more satisfyingly , in fact, than Reed himself had done last week at
the Greek Theatre. And Margo Timmins, that wilting wisp of a lass, was
out there projecting, in her own demure way, a real rocker's spirit and
It made one sit up and think, "By God, they really are a rock 'n' roll
Instrumentally, at least, Cowboy Junkies made a consistently strong
case that they can rock with assurance. Drummer Peter Timmins (one
of the bands three Timmins siblings, along with Margo and rhythm guitarist
Michael) played with a firmness and energy that hinted he'd about had
it with the somnambulism of "Trinity" and its only slightly less sleepy
1990 successor, "The Caution Horses." The drummer played as if thirsting
for motion and force - two elements much more in evidence on the Junkies'
latest album, "Black Eyed Man." Ken Myhr's lead guitar provided deft
accents for the country-inflected mid-tempo numbers that characterize
most of the new material; when given a chance to rock, he mustered
sting, bite, heft and even a capacity for dissonance.
Before "Sweet Jane", Myhr and keyboards player Spencer Evans had powered
Cowboy Junkies through an almost psychedelic swarm of sound in the
instrumental finale of "Murder, Tonight, in the Trailer Park." That
was rock, all right. But two key members of Cowboy Junkies continue
to be particularly ill-suited to be in a rock 'n' roll band. Michael
Timmins spent the entire 100-minute affair seated an hunched over his
guitar. As long as he keeps coming up with songs as rich in imagery
and narrative as the ones on "Black Eyed Man", Timmins, who writes
the bands songs, can concertize from a hammock, for all that it matters.
But Margo has to shed the soft cocoon that too often smothered her
The show offered some clear signs that she can do it. Timmins may not
have screamed bloody murder in "Murder, Tonight..." but she
sounded an alarm that would have wakened the neighbors to the criminal
doings detailed in the song. On "Misguided Angel", an audience
favorite from "The Trinity Session", Timmins showed she could
be assertive in a quieter setting - the wistful maiden showing some
spine. A show-closing cover of Bob Dylan's "If You Gotta Go, Go
Now" offered a firm, if not
quite raucous, vocal that stood up to the band's raw, muscular attack.
During "Lost My Driving Wheel," a deep, lonesome lament that
was part of an impressive troika of good, as yet unrecorded new songs
the band strung together at mid-set, Cowboy Junkies built a steadily
rising instrumental surge. Timmins caught that wave and rode it firmly
She also stepped gingerly out of her shell to serve as a shy but interesting
hostess capable of drawing in the audience with brief song introductions
that were sometimes quite humorous.
Timmins' moments of strength were fleeting, though. Too often, she retreated
to her customary murmur and allowed the band to wash her voice away.
The story-songs on "Black Eyed Man" demand a confident, commanding actress-narrator
who can make the characters vivid and bring their passions to life. Lapsing
repeatedly into the inwardness that obviously is her natural bent, Timmins
didn't come close to doing them justice. In fact, confronted with the
band's new instrumental assertiveness, she seldom managed even to make
the words intelligible. That introversion kept her dusky-but-tremulous
vocal blend from taking the prominent place it must assume if Cowboy
Junkies is to fulfill its promise as a live band.
There's no way that Timmins will ever be a stage-bounding, eardrum-blasting,
eye-riveting firebrand like Maria McKee. But maybe she has it in her
to evolve from too-fragile maidenhood toward the wistful but nevertheless
sturdy presence and vocal bearing of an Emmylou Harris.