Archive for April, 2011
Tuesday, April 26th, 2011
I said in an earlier blog that one of the aspects of the band that we wanted to capture with Volume 3 was the psychedelic, acid-blues vibe that is a large part of our live show. And a large part of that side of our sound is Jeff Bird’s manic wailing and gnashing. Jeff joined us over twenty years ago when we gathered in a little known church named Trinity. We didn’t know Jeff, but we knew of his work with the folk outfit Tamarac and we knew that Jeff played fiddle and we wanted to add that instrument to our arrangements. There weren’t a whole lot of fiddle players wandering around the punk clubs of Toronto in the mid-80’s….(the clubs are lousy with them these days, as well as mando, accordion and pedal steel players). Jeff showed up with his fiddle, as well as his acoustic mandolin and harps. The rest of that story is, as they say, history. But Jeff stuck around and joined our touring outfit. He played a large part on Caution Horses which was the follow up to The Trinity Session, but on subsequent albums we started to experiment with other musicians and instruments and while Jeff’s contributions were important, they weren’t as plentiful. But as his importance in the studio waned, his importance on the road waxed. Over the years we have asked Jeff to pick up probably a dozen different instruments on stage and he has always done so with gusto. One of his most important “finds” on the road was an electric mandolin that he discovered in a little music store in Boulder, Colorado. He hemmed and hawed about buying it all day and then decided to go for it, unsure of how it would fit in to what we were doing and whether it would find a place in his own repertoire. At first the electric-mando rarely made an appearance on our stage, but over the years, as we have raised our freak flags higher with each passing tour, the electric-mando has become Jeff’s instrument of choice. Jeff made a big return to the studio with us on Open and the electric-mando is featured on a lot of those songs, but on Sing In My Meadow, Jeff’s madness is put on display in all its raging glory….lock up your children, this is scary stuff.
Here is the board mix for I Move On, with no vocals, so you can appreciate all of the subtle nuances of Jeff’s insanity…wail on, dude…
Check out previous Sing In My Meadow blogs:
Thursday, April 14th, 2011
Cowboy Junkies: Demons
The second installment of Cowboy Junkies’ Nomad series, Demons delves into the catalog of the late singer/songwriter Vic Chesnutt. The resulting 11 tracks are intense, soulful, joyous, uplifting and heartbreakingly sad. The band excels here, pulling out the nuance in Chesnutt’s often dark writing and capturing his spirit while simultaneously making the songs its own. Plunging into Chesnutt’s emotional depths couldn’t have been easy—even Margo Timmins’ commanding voice sounds raw and ready to crack at moments—but “Flirted with You All My Life,” “Supernatural” and “See You Around” expose the demons (death and suicide) Chesnutt battled his entire life. On the other hand, “Betty Lonely” (profiling an old lady’s life obsessions) and “West of Rome” show Chesnutt’s eye for life with beautiful, haunting clarity.
Monday, April 11th, 2011
We received some sad news this week. John Bottomley, a long time friend of the band, unexpectedly died near his home in Brakendale, BC. We met John in the early 90’s and had the pleasure of releasing John’s brilliant album Library Of The Sun on Latent. He was an inspired songwriter, singer and performer. I have many fond memories of nights spent in Toronto clubs, listening to John and his smokin’ band tearing the place up. His live version of Gordon Lightfoot’s song “The Way I Feel” was our inspiration for the version that we recorded for the 2003 Lightfoot tribute album, “Beautiful”. Alan hooked up with John a couple of years ago and played bass on his most recent album and our friend and frequent collaborator, Joby Baker, produced the album at his studio in Victoria. I’ll best remember John for his music. It inspired me. When I first heard his song She Lay Down By The Water it grabbed me in all the right places and made me want to share it with the world….long red bottle of wine…bye John.
Sunday, April 10th, 2011
By: Dennis Cook
In their 25 years together the Cowboy Junkies have shown an unerring knack for crawling inside the music of others. While their originals merge soulful, familial warmth with jet black eddies, they’ve also shown a voluminous appetite for quality material by Neil Young, Grateful Dead, Fred Eaglesmith, Lou Reed and many others, elevating their selections well beyond the usual easy hit of a cover by truly inhabiting the pieces and unearthing something new in them. However, the band has never dedicated a full album to another artist before Demons (released February 15 on the band’s own Latent Recordings), a carefully selected and lovingly executed set of Vic Chesnutt songs.
A longtime friend of the Junkies, Chesnutt’s music writhes and breathes in strikingly fresh ways on Demons, which offers both insight into Chesnutt’s songwriting and celebrates a life cut woefully short. Originally, the band planned to record an album with Chesnutt but his overdose on Christmas Day of 2009 made that impossible. Instead, Demons serves as a poignant reminder of what a stunning, unique craftsman and personality Chesnutt was, with the Junkies bravely exploring some of the most shadowy parts of his catalogue, including the mortality meditation “Flirted With You All My Life.” Demons is both celebration and memorial as well as a testament to the Junkies’ own winning skill as interpreters.
Today, the Cowboy Junkies – Margo Timmins (vocals), Michael Timmins (songwriter, guitar), Peter Timmins (drums) and Alan Anton (bass) – are operating as one of the most independent acts in rock, running their own label and increasing what was already one of the strongest fan-band relationships going. A sense of freedom and unharnessed creativity infuses their work these days – a rare thing for a band in their third decade.
We spoke to Michael Timmins about Demons and where things stand with the Junkies in 2011.
JamBase: It’s a cool idea – and sadly, eerily timely – to do a whole record of Vic Chesnutt songs. How did you get into his music in the first place?
Michael Timmins: Margot’s husband gave us a copy of West of Rome way back when in the early 90s. He’d seen Vic at SXSW and just knew we’d connect with it. We all fell in love with the record and that was it. At the time, we were working on songs for Lay It Down and actually threw the song “West of Rome” into the mix. But, we never felt we’d captured it properly, so we dropped it. Then, by coincidence, we went down to Athens, Georgia to record Lay It Down. Even though it was Vic’s stomping ground, we never hooked up with him during the month we were there. Then, when Lay It Down was released, we got in touch and he opened a bunch of shows for us on that tour.
JamBase: The first time I saw him live kind of blew my mind; such a scene with his battered instrument, wheelchair and nakedly curmudgeon attitude. Was he a surprise to you?
Michael Timmins: Yes, he was and I think even more so for our crew. At our first show together, our sound guy looked over at me and said, “Oh my God, you’ve got to get rid of that guitar.” But that’s his sound – that beat up nylon string guitar with a crappy pick-up in it that he just shredded and hurt people with. It was just great, and I loved the audience reaction to it, too. Initially, you just go, “What the hell is going on up there?” He made no attempts to endear himself with an audience. It was a fantastic experience to watch him every night.
Then, we stayed in touch, visited when we were near each other, and did another tour in Europe together that was even better. We also invited him to the Trinity Revisited concert to help us on that project. From a musical point of view, things just got better and better. I got to see what a professional he was. He put on these airs of being sort of a hack and I think he always felt self-conscious or inferior about his musician skills. No matter how much praise he got from those around him, I got the feeling you never felt up to snuff. But he was always so good and so professional and he was so lauded by his peers.
Getting a good review is one thing but the respect of your peers is what it’s all about. These are people who know the insides and out of making records and playing live, and those people, more than anybody, were into what he was doing. Obviously, he was an extremely complex person, and that’s what’s so great about his songs, which reflect that and don’t hide it. It’s all there.
What do you find so appealing in his songs, which dovetail beautifully with the Cowboy Junkies own work?
When we came up with the idea to do this record we all knew we had to do it, but then we wondered can we do it? Are we going to be able to transform these songs into Junkies songs?
When we cover a song we want it to become our song. We don’t want to just copy it. It’s gotta be seamless with our catalog, and these songs are so personal and peculiar to Vic – everything from the production to the structures to the lyrics and how he sung them. Then, we began to work on them and study them a bit to figure out how the hell to approach them. Soon we figured out that this was going to be fun, except for Margot, who asked, “What about me? [laughs].” She was nervous, and so was I. I didn’t know how she was going to pull it off, from the phrasing to the weird humor and references.
He had such a dark, dark sense of humor, but if you get it, well, you get Vic.
Exactly. She began to study them a bit, and she came to them fairly easily. She can sometimes take a bit of time to figure out how she wants to sing a song but she came to these fairly quickly. She studied them and found her own way into them. There’s humor but also a great deal of sorrow, and she found that. She also wanted there to be a lot of celebration, celebration of Vic, in these versions.
There’s a strong band vibe on Demons where one picks up on the whole group being in the same room capturing a sound together.
That was really important to us. Vic’s records are very immediate sounding. Ideas are being thrown at tape and then we move on. At least that’s the way it sounds even though the truth was more complex. We wanted to keep that immediacy. Pete would figure out a groove and we’d go for it and move onto the next one.
As a band in general, the Cowboy Junkies seem to be in a real renaissance right now. Not being on a record label may be the best thing to happen to you folks in some time.
It’s definitely opened up a lot of things for us. I don’t know exactly why, but there’s no need to second guess what you’re doing because nobody is going to ask you about it [laughs]. You don’t have to go into somebody’s office and explain what you want to do to get approval. There’s nobody else there. We just sit around and decide what we want to do and then do it. It’s been really healthy for us, and because it’s so difficult to sell records these days, it’s nice not to be beholden to anyone to have to sell x-number of records.
We’ve always done the music we want to do but there’s been that little added pressure when somebody invests money in you, whether through promotion or production costs. You are beholden to them to sell some records. Now, there’s not even that pressure. If we want to sell a thousand copies of [a release] then we sell thousand. We don’t have to look at the bottom line where these guys need to sell 50,000 copies to get their money back. There’s none of that, and it’s been refreshing.
There are a growing number of ways to reach people who appreciate that purity of intention. The Cowboy Junkies’ Clubhouse Subscription is a good one, offering a lot of exclusives, live material and other unique perks over and above digital access to the band’s new releases.
Michael Timmins by Susan J. Weiand
We’re always adding more, too. It’s just a matter of reaching people and explaining it to them. There are so many cool opportunities and things you can do with the internet these days. It’s been amazing to put a lot of things out we never could have on a label. We have our own studio these days, and it’s just so easy to put out live recordings now, too. The only real challenge is letting people know and explaining what we’re doing well.
Luckily, that’s something we’ve done almost unconsciously since the beginning, finding our people and relating to them in the club that night. It was important to us to break down that wall even before the internet. We never really bought into the idea that we’re onstage and you’re not and that makes us three feet higher than you [laughs]. We were never comfortable with that kind of thinking. With the internet you can do that even more. By revealing yourself even more it really breaks down that wall.
I think you’re a band that’s well served by offering up a deeper, broader narrative. Unfortunately, the Cowboy Junkies’ soundbite is from a time very early in your career when you were more of a radio presence, the time of “Sweet Jane.” I always want to tell people who have that impression, “Do you know how many dead bodies there are in their songs?” [Timmins chuckles loudly at this]. There is a very dark side to this band that doesn’t get mentioned by casual listeners and most critics. The internet gives you chance to meet people who are open and even enthusiastic about getting the band’s big picture.
It’s amazing! And again, we don’t put up the wall in person as well. Margot mingles in the crowd, and if you show up at sound check you’ll usually get into the sound check. If you show up at the bus, we’re gonna come out and talk to you. That’s one of the beauties of being on tour – you get to meet people who are interested in what you do. What an amazing thing to travel around and meet these people. It’s a really special thing, and we never forget that. When these people want to come up and have a conversation I’m fascinated to find out what they do and where they’re from and why they’re here. It’s just a cool thing.
Wednesday, April 6th, 2011
Cowboy Junkies: Demons; The Nomad Series, Volume 2
There is little doubt that the forlorn songwriting and achingly beautiful yet at the same time deeply discordant vocal tone of folk troubadour Vic Chesnutt is an acquired taste. He achieved his most wide-spread acclaim when he recorded and performed with previously established peers who were already fans of his intricate and honest songwriting, such as Widespread Panic, with which he released two albums under the band name Brute. Partially paralyzed in a 1983 drunk driving accident, in severe pain, great debt, and understandably depressed, suicide—which he attempted several times—was often a subject of his songwriting. Sadly, he finally succeeded, swallowing an overdose of muscle relaxants that left him in a coma before finally passing on Christmas night of 2009.
Chesnutt’s staunchest supporters and fans were songwriters themselves, such as R.E.M. singer Michael Stipe, who produced Chesnutt’s first two albums. Sweet Relief II: Gravity of the Situation is a 1996 tribute album of Chesnutt’s songs recorded by various well known artists including Madanna, R.E.M., and the Indigo Girls, with proceeds going to the Sweet Relief Fund to assist musicians in need of health care.
Toronto’s Cowboy Junkies toured with Chesnutt several times, and in 2007 he was a guest musician on Trinity Revisited, the 20th anniversary edition of their seminal album, The Trinity Session. It was at those live sessions, recorded in the same elegant church in Toronto that the original was, that Chesnutt and the Junkies initially planned to cut an album of his songs together. While that project never materialized, the Cowboy Junkies have recorded and released the evocatively titled Demons, volume 2 in their Nomad Series, a collection of eleven Chesnutt songs recorded by the band.
The ethereal voiced Margo Timmins and the hauntingly surreal music of the Cowboy Junkies brings a stunningly beautiful quality to Chesnutt’s songs, often difficult to hear in his own versions. While both Chesnutt and the Junkies are known for their sparse and somber studio recordings, the band takes the sullen tone of his acoustic ballad “Wrong Piano” and re-imagines it as a churning, raucous rave up, with swelling Rhodes organ, booming drums, and moaning guitar squalls. Chesnutt’s songwriting often addressed his troubled livelihood and ominous demons, never more so than on the melancholic “Flirted with You All My Life”, on which he contemplates suicide:
Oh Death, you hector me
And decimate those dear to me
You tease me with your sweet relief
You are cruel and you are constant
Listening further, however, to Chesnutt’s own recording—taken from his 2009 final CD, At the Cut—one gets the sense he might have finally rounded the corner and seen a light, as he intones: “Oh Death, clearly I’m not ready”. In the hands of Margo and Michael Timmins (guitar), it’s given even more life affirming reverence. Elegant piano and wailing and distorted guitar envelop Margo’s opulent vocals, belted out in a gospel hymn, lifting the song to a powerful and elegiac requiem. Likewise, the Junkies add graceful texture to “See You Around”, drenching the song in swirling organ, as well as the lovely acoustic strums of the original.
The Cowboy Junkies embrace their mellow, somber side as well. They leave the dark and ominous arrangements of some of Chesnutt’s sparsest songs intact. “Supernatural” is all the more harrowing with gently plucked mandolin and somber woodwinds, while both “Square Room” and “West of Rome” retain their doom and gloom somber tone, relating tales of alcoholism and locked-in tendencies. A sullen, resonating string section adds moody, languid atmospherics on the latter two.
On “Strange Language”, one of Chesnutt’s most hard-rocking songs, the Junkies take it further by adding a boisterous brass section. It works to strong effect, overpowering Timmins’s vocals and some of Chesnutt’s most vague lyrics. There’s nothing vague about “When the Bottom Fell Out”, however. Again taken from At the Cut, the song once again finds Chesnutt contemplative, and relates the feeling of falling, catching a wave of air and gliding, but falling nonetheless. His version is solemn and glum, with single notes finger picked on an acoustic guitar. But on Demons, the Junkies turn it into a New Orleans styled funeral requiem, with slow, gospel inflicted organs and mournful horns. Timmins’s smoky alto is eloquent and gorgeous, and it plays as a beautiful goodbye to a dear friend.
Though Chesnutt didn’t achieve much success in terms of record sales or radio play, he was, without doubt, one of the most gifted and talented songwriters of the 20th century. Like him, Toronto’s Cowboy Junkies never really caught on with a mainstream audience either, but over 26 years have developed a strong, cultish following. Demons makes it clear that Chesnutt’s dark and solemn songwriting is naturally suited for a band like Cowboy Junkies, and should go a long way toward furthering Chesnutt’s own legacy.
Tuesday, April 5th, 2011
Well, it was an epic night of fireworks, costumes, staging, choreography and physicality. Undertaker extended his streak to 19 – 0, despite the fact that he had to be carted from the ring on a stretcher; The Miz (my favourite…did you see him on Conan last week) beat John Cena to retain his title, in kind of a lame match ; Randy Orton and CM Punk tried to out-psycho each other in an excellent match that ended with a flying RKO; Rey Mysterio and Cody Rhodes got ugly with each other in a match that will only increase their hatred of each other; our homey, Edge, surprisingly defeated Alberto Delrrrrrrio and then proceeded to trash Alberto’s vintage Rolls Royce (a move which my eight year-old daughter felt was, “not necessary at all” and I agree with her).
Ever since my 10 year old son has got me involved in the WWE Universe (we’ve even attended two matches and we watch Smackdown every Friday night) I have become a bit obsessed. I love the storylines and the characters; the choreography and physicality of the matches is quite something. These guys (and gals) work their asses off. Their tour schedule looks like a rock band’s schedule with shows every night in all of the cities that any respectable rock tour would hit. Except these guys have to slam their bodies around every night (and some them are not all that much younger than some rockers that we know). They travel in tour busses with their crews and production in tow, some nights they play to half filled houses and some nights, like Sunday night, they find themselves in front of 70,000 people…but each night, no matter where they are, they need to “bring it” (as The Rock says). Its impressive and most importantly, really fun to watch. They are also marketing geniuses…no sooner had John Cena walked into the Wrestlemania ring in his new T-Shirt than I got an email hawking the sale of that new shirt. I’d love to see a behind the scenes documentary look at pro-wrestling (I’m sure its not a pretty sight) does anyone know of one? I would bet that the film The Wrestler is a pretty good depiction of what happens to a lot of these guys when their bodies finally give out. There is no doubt a lot of dark corners in this world (Chris Benoit found himself in the darkest of these corners), but I have grown to have tons of respect and admiration for these athlete-entertainers.
Sunday, April 3rd, 2011
I hope everyone has their pay-per-view paid for or their theater tickets for tonight’s epic bout at the Georgia Dome. It’s pretty darn exciting: The Rock returns; will Undertaker extend his Wrestlemania streak to 19-0 vs HHH (our household is betting that Shawn Michaels gets involved in some manner); will Michael Cole get his sneering grin slapped off his face by Jerry “The King” Lawler; who will survive the grudge match between CM Punk and Randy Orton; will Edge (our homeboy) be able to defend his title verse that upstart Alberto Delrrrrrrrrrrio?…and the storylines go on and on. In a word, it’s going to be AWWWWWESOME! Stay tuned for the postmortem.