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Live Review: Cowboy Junkies @ Melbourne Recital Centre,

3 February 2023 | 12:14 pm | Andy Hazel

“When we started talking about this tour of Australia and New Zealand, I was 58. Now I’m 62."

Outside, a short while before showtime, pedestrians were wincing their way past the rain-lashed windows of the Melbourne Recital Centre, umbrellas inverted. Ubers hissing by in the rain, their prices surging to a height not seen since New Year’s Eve.

Inside the honey-coloured interior though, all is calm. On stage, the band quietly take their seats as the applause dies down, a delicate thrum emerges from the guitar amp and the Cowboy Junkies ease into their set with a cover of Neil Young’s Don’t Let it Bring You Down. As bassist Alan Anton lurks stage left and guitarist Michael Timmins sits hunched over his electric guitar, his brother Pete busies himself across his many drums and cymbals, the sound elevated in the room, often to the detriment of the band’s greatest asset, the voice of Pete’s older sister Margo. Sitting on a stool next to a small table holding a vase of proteas and a cup of tea, her platinum blonde hair reflecting the lights, as soon as she begins to sing the room audibly relaxes. This is what we came for. 

Behind her sits Jeff Bird, who, as the show progresses, moves adeptly between harmonica, slide guitar, percussion and mandolin, which is usually heavily treated to sound like a heavily distorted electric guitar, a sound jarringly at odds with the experience of watching him play. The band’s decision to play their best-known song second, their cover of Lou Reed’s Sweet Jane, is a bold move, and one that speaks to the confidence of a band whose lineup has remained unchanged for nearly 40 years.

“The promoter is here tonight,” says Margo Timmins, as the rapturous applause dies down. “When we started talking about this tour of Australia and New Zealand, I was 58. Now I’m 62,” she says, laughing. “What we’re going to try to do tonight is sell records. That’s what we’ve been trying to do for decades now. But first, we’re going to do two sets, the first is songs from the album we were planning to tour four years ago, All This Reckoning, and in the second set, hopefully, we’ll get to a song you came for.” 

The set progresses with emotive folk funk of The Things We Do to Each Other and Missing Children, and a cover of The Rolling StonesNo Expectations and David Bowie’s Five Years, but it’s the subtle signature perfection of their own Dreaming My Dreams of You, from the band’s career-making album The Trinity Session that really shines. Whisper-close vocals, subtle instrumentation and the audience filling the space with silent enthusiasm, it’s everything a fan could hope for.

After a fifteen-minute break, a move that suggests they’ve occupied the spot of their own opening act, the Cowboy Junkies return with the bluesy warble of I Don’t Get It before moving into the opening tracks from their similarly legendary 1990 album The Caution Horses, ‘Cause Cheap Is How I Feel and the magnificent Sun Comes Up, It’s Tuesday Morning. The crowd cheer the opening bars of each and Margo smiles, her warm voice inhabiting the characters of the songs. Women who feel like they could command an Annie Proulx short story or inspire a song by Alvvays.

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As they begin the psychedelic boogie of Blue Guitar, Margo coughs. She walks to the back of the stage, the rest of the band seemingly oblivious as she stares at the curtain behind them before wandering off. Michael Timmins spirals away on his Telecaster, the band remaining in symmetry. After several minutes Margo Timmins returns to the stage with a cup of tea, dunks the tea bag several times, sips it and returns to her seat before delivering the final verse in spellbinding fashion.

After a brace of acoustic songs that take in another Neil Young cover (Tired Eyes) and a stunning, silencing version of Rake by Townes Van Zandt, Margo plays what she calls her “favourite Junkies song, one that makes me cry sometimes”, Bea's Song. Between these, Margo shares stories. One about a St Louis venue so mouldy because of its proximity to the Mississippi River that it was a relief it was washed away. Another about travelling to Chicago to play a concert and crying with a friend because they were going to be 30 years old soon, an impossibly huge number to two women in their late 20s. A third about how dazzling it was to walk in the Melbourne Botanic Gardens this morning and see “such wild birds, and even wilder trees”. "We couldn’t have mornings like this if you didn’t buy tickets and make the promoters happy. So, thank you,” she tells us.

Closing with their majestic Misguided Angel, A Common Disaster (“a song dedicated to my cold”, says Margo) and the dirty, dynamic blues of Walking After Midnight, what really stays with you after a Cowboy Junkies show is the sense of the people in the band. Their set may have largely comprised songs by other people, but when a band has been playing together for so long and played so many shows, the comfort they have with each other, the smoky magnificence of Margo Timmins voice when she draws in close to the microphone, or its power when she throws her head back and delivers a full-throated vibrato that even a cold can’t dull, it’s a reminder of how few bands have played as many gigs as Cowboy Junkies, and how few bands will ever have the opportunity to play even a tenth as many today.