Cowboy Junkies set for Friday show at Homer's Center for the Arts
For more than 30 years, Canada’s Cowboy Junkies have won fans with their unique sound, blending folk, rock, country, and blues influences with sparse arrangements, slow tempos, and haunting vocals. From the start, cover songs have been an important part of their repertoire, but you’d never call them a cover band – their versions of classics by Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Lou Reed, and others are so distinctive they take on a life of their own.
“We've never really approached them as cover songs,” said guitarist Michael Timmins in a recent phone interview from his home in Toronto. “Once we decide to do a song and figure out a version of it that we like, it's part of our expression whether we wrote it or not.”
With that in mind, the band, which performs Friday night at the Center for the Arts in Homer, just put out a new album, “Songs of the Recollection,” which compiles nine cover songs, five of which have never been commercially released. Fellow Canadians Gordon Lightfoot and Neil Young are feted, along with Bob Dylan, Gram Parsons, David Bowie, Vic Chesnutt, the Rolling Stones, and The Cure.
The album leads off with Bowie’s “Five Years,” from his 1972 album “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars.”
“That record is such a big album for us, so when we decided to do that song we weren't sure whether we could pull it off,” Timmins said. “But once we started to play it, we really fell into it. And we love the audience reaction to it, too – we've been playing it live for a few years now – so it's kind of a special song, especially at this point in our collective histories.”
The band takes the most liberties with Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris’s “Ooh Las Vegas,” which turns their buoyant country rocker into something much more ominous.
“We wanted to put our own stamp on it, so we made it more psychedelic and more nasty,” Timmins said. “We tried to get a really heavy bed track, and then put on a lot of vocals and swirling guitars to get a very psychedelic vibe to it. It gave us sort of the surreal version of Las Vegas as opposed to the more heartfelt one that Emmylou and Gram talked about.”
The album closes with a spare, jagged take of The Cure’s “Seventeen Seconds.”
“That was a fun one,” Timmins said. “Again, we’re doing the bare minimum of what the original does, though that one is more deconstructed in a way. We'd probably played that song once, and then we recorded it. And we really liked the looseness of it, and the way it barely hangs together.”
Cowboy Junkies still include the original lineup of siblings Michael (guitar), Peter (drums), and Margo Timmins (vocals) along with longtime friend Alan Anton (bass), who got together in Toronto in 1985 and have released more than 20 albums since.
The band’s second album, 1988’s “The Trinity Session,” was recorded in a Toronto church and garnered worldwide attention. Some of its songs, especially “Blue Moon” and “Sweet Jane,” still receive regular airplay in testament to the album’s staying power.
“We are, of course, surprised that it had any power at all,” Timmins said. “We did it by ourselves as an independent album. We were just recording what we thought was good and what we wanted to do, but there weren’t any great expectations for it. The fact that it became the sensation that it did and then has continued to be, you can't predict that. It’s a surprise, for sure.”
In 2008, the band marked the release of “The Trinity Session” with “Trinity Revisited,” which featured new takes of the album’s songs recorded in the same church with the help of a few guests. The band then played “The Trinity Session” in its entirety on its 2014 tour, including a show at Ithaca’s Hangar Theatre.
The band’s most recent studio album is 2020’s “Ghosts”; Timmins reports that the band has just finished a new record. “We’re mixing it now and not sure when we'll release it,” he said. “We’ve got a whole bunch of new songs, but we won't play those live yet.”
There's no need to: for many years, Cowboy Junkies have played two full sets on their tours to accommodate their burgeoning discography.
“The second set is dedicated to the catalog – there's always a few songs in there that we try and play all the time because they're fan favorites,” explains Timmins. “The first set is usually where we experiment a little bit. If we have a brand-new record out, we'll play a lot of songs off that record and, you know, just open it up a little bit.
“We try to cover it all, to make sure it's still interesting for those who have seen us a few times and like to be challenged a bit,” he continued, “but at the same time, people want to hear stuff that they know, and so we try and satisfy that as well.”
If You Go
Who: Cowboy Junkies
What: Album release tour for “Songs of the Recollection”
When: 8 p.m. Friday, April 8
Where: Center for the Arts, Homer
Cost: $28.50-$48.50; tickets available online here