GOD, I love the Cowboy Junkies. I mean, what a great name. The four-piece from Toronto started somewhere in the mid-1980s with a mix of rock, country, blues and folk, carried by hushed (and occasionally screaming) guitars and the honey-infused, pure voice of Margo Timmins.
Their second album, The Trinity Session from 1988, was their first masterpiece. It was recorded in an old church, which gave the songs a warm, sparse sound, played at ear-caressing volume and a stately pace. The power was in the tunes and the words: sad music that made you feel good.
Their own compositions, such as Misguided Angel, were perfect songs of love, loss and longing. Equally striking was their choice of covers (Lou Reed, Hank Williams and Elvis Presley on The Trinity Session), which they digested and played as if they were originals.
In the course of their career, they paid tribute to many of their influences: Townes Van Zandt, Neil Young, Robert Johnson, The Cure, Rolling Stones, Gram Parsons, David Bowie. Album after album, Cowboy Junkies offered immaculate taste and clever sophistication that was never show-offy. Each album delivered a new set of intriguing songs.
I’ve seen them three times, once in Amsterdam and twice in Berlin. Intimate gigs as if you were in someone’s living room, with Margo Timmins sitting on bar stool behind a small table with a rose in a vase and a glass of wine (or was it water?). Her brothers Michael (guitar and main songwriter) and Peter (drums) and longtime friend Alan Anton (bass) played in an unobtrusive way, serving the song instead of the ego. The music whispered and occasionally exploded. Whatever they played, they captured our full attention and devotion. But that was more than 20 years ago...
When I visited New York last month, the friend with whom I stayed told me she had tickets for what was advertised as “An evening with the Cowboy Junkies". They would play in Tarrytown, a small place on the Hudson river 40km from Manhattan. We took the train and had vegetarian burgers in an award-winning restaurant next-door to the Tarrytown Music Hall, where the band was performing.
The venue happened to be a beautiful theatre that was built in 1885 by chocolate magnate William L Wallace. According to the website “it was opened during Tarrytown’s ‘Millionaires' Colony' era when prominent families like the Rockefellers, Goulds and Vanderbilts resided in the town and gathered at the music hall for its lavish balls, flower shows and concerts".
It’s still a magnificent place, now largely run by volunteers. The band started exactly at 8pm, opening with a cover of Neil Young’s lament Don’t Let It Bring You Down, followed by two other tunes from their 2022 covers album Songs of the Recollection. Over two hours they played 20 songs, including two live debuts from the just-released album Such Ferocious Beauty. (I’m listening to it as I write this. It’s good, but quite depressing — many of the songs deal with the dementia-related death of the father of Margo, Michael and Peter.)
What struck me was that Margo urged us several times to buy the albums, a T-shirt, whatever was available at the merch table near the entrance. She sounded slightly desperate. Of course, given the difficulty (and expense) of getting new music in South Africa, I obliged happily. I walked away with two vinyl copies of the impossible-to-find lost album Sharon, as well as two signed copies of Songs of the Recollection. I was going to make a Cape Town friend very happy.
But that’s beside the point. I kept thinking about Margo’s plea: please buy our stuff. And she wasn’t the only one. I noticed during my short stay in America how desperate bands are to sell merchandise. Two Covid-years of not being able to play, plus the dominance of badly paid streaming services, have made it virtually impossible to make a living as a professional musician — unless your name is Bruce Springsteen or Taylor Swift.
Those involved in what can loosely be called “alternative music" are going through trying times. Album sales have collapsed. Gigging is fine, but how much do you actually make? Cowboy Junkies tickets weren’t cheap — they ranged from $38 to $54 (R720-1030) — but if you take into account that a medium-sized takeaway cappuccino in Manhattan can set you back $8 (including tax and tip), that’s not a hell of a lot.
And think of the travelling, the petrol, the hotels, the roadies. Margo’s plea was sincere. She and her bandmates are all in their sixties. They never sold out, never went for the big bucks. And now they’re stuck. What else can they do but make music and push the merch?
The next night I went to a dive bar in Brooklyn where the Bush Tetras played. They are a post-punk band that I heard in the late 1970s when they had an underground hit with You Can’t Be Funky, a very catchy and clever tune (You can’t be funky if you haven’t got a soul/ you can’t be a lover if you got no control’). That’s the only song I really knew.
When I saw on a news site that they had re-formed, with Steve Shelley (ex-Sonic Youth) on drums, I tried to get a ticket (they were relatively cheap at $25). Alas, sold out. However, those clever American sales sites can put you on a waiting list if you want. And that’s what I wanted. And lo, two days before the gig I got a notification that there was a ticket available. They would keep it for a couple of hours. I quickly pressed “Buy".
Off I went on a rainy Wednesday evening to a place called Union Pool, a former pest control/swimming pool supply store in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. I dreaded the trip. I had a bad cold and those Brooklyn venues can be quite isolated. But it was smooth sailing. Two subways and a 100m stroll brought me to a tiny, cosy venue. The support act BABY BABY played short enough to keep things interesting, then we were treated to a thrilling hour-long show by the Bush Tetras, who have lost none of their biting, feminist power.
They played a fast and furious set which showed that women in their sixties can still lay down some mean riffs and fiery vocals. The crowd — many of them, judging by their weathered faces, must have been around in the 1980s when New York was a very tricky but very exciting place to be — shook their hips to the “hits" Too Many Creeps and You Can’t Be Funky.
I bought some $5 beers, shook my hips as well, and smiled at the woman next to me. When the gig ended, we chatted. She told me she was from upstate New York, waiting for a friend who never arrived and who now was angry with her because she had been given the wrong address. “Well," said the woman, “she could have looked the place up on Google Maps." I agreed. “Laziness," I said.
We also agreed that the Bush Tetras still sounded fabulous. She told me their bass player, Cait ‘Rocky’ O’Riordan, used to be in the Irish folk-punk band The Pogues. I didn’t know that (later I looked it up, and she was right). We walked out and said an awkward goodbye, one of those moments where you think some kind of friendship could have developed.
I took the L train and then the 6, walked a few blocks to 49th Street and arrived home. “How was the gig," my friend asked, pouring a drink. “Fabulous," I said. “No souvenirs?" she asked. Only then did I remember the merch stall with Bush Tetras LPs, CDs and T-shirts. I particularly liked the one that said ‘Too Many Creeps’. “Shit," I said, “I completely forgot."
Now that would not happen on the final night, when we went to see the Drive-By Truckers in the Bowery Ballroom, a downtown Manhattan club that Rolling Stone once awarded “#1 Best Club in America". As those of you familiar with my book Blues for the White Man (Penguin Random House, 2022) will know, Drive-By Truckers are one of my favourite rock bands. Five Southerners who mix The Clash with Lynyrd Skynyrd and Hank Williams.
On stage, they sweat, they boogie, they snarl, they shout, they play violent guitar solos, and they drink. The last time I saw them was in 2016, somewhere in Alabama, shortly after the election of Donald Trump as America’s new president. Racial and political tensions were high. The Drive-By Truckers had just released their most political album to date, American Band, with songs about puzzlement, pain and purpose. They played with a Black Lives Matter banner draped over the keyboards, which was quite a statement for Southern boys playing in a Southern town where black lives never really mattered.
In New York, the BLM banner was gone, and so were heavy political songs such as my favourite, Surrender Under Protest. Instead we got a much more relaxed band and a two-and-a-half-hour set that unspooled from a breathless opening — song after song, no pause, no banter — into something celebratory, with the guitarist/singer Patterson Hood on his knees and keyboardist/guitarist Jay Gonzalez swigging whiskey straight from a bottle until he could barely stand.
The much younger bassist, Matt Patton, started the gig with a big grin which stayed on his face for the entire 150 minutes. They gave us a storm of rock music that never felt forced or lackadaisical. And that’s quite something for band that has been together for 27 years.
This time, I didn’t forget the merch stall. I skipped the T-shirts (I already have one that says “It’s great to be alive”) but did buy the latest album, Welcome 2 Club XIII. I handed the saleswoman my credit card, and she swiped it then turned the small payment screen my way. “$17.99". Underneath it gave me the option of a tip: 10%, 15% or 20%. A tip? Really? For selling me a CD? But this is New York, and tips are people’s lifeblood, so I pressed the 10% option. The woman handed me the album with barely a thank you. I smiled at her and said I liked her cowboy shirt. Nothing would spoil my evening.
♦ VWB ♦
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