Obscure cover versions and quietly accomplished musicianship were the order of the day at this end-of-tour performance by Canadian alt-country veterans Cowboy Junkies. But rather like the endless cups of tea consumed by singer Margo Timmins, this Royal Festival Hall show provided pleasant sustenance rather than anything bolder.
Cowboy Junkies are now in their fifth decade. The band formed in Toronto as a family affair, with Timmins siblings Margo, Michael and Peter on vocals, guitar and drums, and Michael’s childhood friend Alan Anton on bass. That line-up remains in place today, and they were joined on stage by long-term collaborator Jeff Bird on mandolin, harmonica and percussion. As ever, the stage was set with just a black-draped table adorned with a simple vase of flowers next to Margo’s bar stool, reflecting the minimalism of the music.
Taking their influences from classic blues and folk but also the punk of their youth, the band roamed across a wide musical terrain, overlaying their songs with a hushed intricacy. The first half of the set featured tracks from this year’s covers album Songs of the Recollection. David Bowie’s Five Years, the Rolling Stones’ No Expectations and The Cure’s Seventeen Seconds were all Junkified with layers of shimmering guitars and tumbling drums. The emphasis lay on small details, on the colour amid the darkness.
This was beautiful sad music. Margo’s voice could turn on a sixpence between tremulous and powerful, particularly when she belted out the “We’ve got five years” crescendo of the Bowie song. Don’t Let It Bring You Down was one of two Neil Young covers: “As a Canadian band it’s kind of mandatory you play a Neil Young song every night,” Margo joked.
She was chatty and wry throughout, referencing Canada’s “terrible” defeat in the World Cup to Croatia earlier in the day (“Very upsetting to everyone but me”) and also talking about how age can make you invisible. Margo, who’s 61 and has spent all of her adult life in a rock ‘n’ roll band, recalled walking into a shop and being looked at in a pitying manner by a young assistant. Margo thought (but didn’t say) “Little girl, how you wish you’d have my life.” One-nil to Timmins.
But there’s a fine line between mesmerising and muted, and I’m afraid the concert plodded at times. During Junkies song Sun Comes Up, It’s Tuesday Morning I genuinely wondered if Margo had briefly nodded off on her stool. Perhaps those countless cups of tea were just a tad too watery. Likewise, I wanted a headier brew.