Security was a problem. Figures. Our names were not on the guest list as they were supposed to be. Figures. We threw around some names and titles, as is expected. Titles confuse people into believing that you actually are credible. Eventually some record exec showed up who had enough titles behind his name to agree to be nice and let us in.
So there we were, a photographer, a writer, a camera bag with an ancient Sony mike hooked into some newly purchased recording equipment stowed in the bottom. We were in, of all places, a planetarium. Why were we here? Oh yeah, over there, underneath the huge satellites hanging from the ceiling, there's the stage.
You see, for some reason, the Cowboy Junkies had been placed here by some promotional director with a taste for the weird. They were going to do a stripped-down, no-bass, no-drums show to promote their new album Pale Sun, Crescent Moon-- so where better than the Adler Planetarium?
First we went to Mars, the Red Planet. Our closest neighbor. Well, we didn't actually go to Mars, but we did play with some cool exhibit which flashes a lot of white Christmas lights (as you 'travel' through the solar system) and then shows you a diorama of the alien surface. I would weigh 61 pounds on Mars, according to the high-tech display.
The demographics of the crowd was quite odd. This was a radio promotion and 1700 people had sent in postcards to enter a drawing for 75 pairs of tickets. Yet the entire randomly-drawn crowd seemed to be comprised of 40-year-old band-name-dropping, schmoozing record execs getting tanked on mixed drinks and imported beer. They milled about talking about this "cutting edge" band and that. And Oh yeah, did you catch so and so at the Riv? I did. That show will be talked about.
So we take our seats and get ready for the show. Tape recorder, check; camera, loaded; ball point, cocked and ready. After all, we were here to cover the story. And Michael is up on stage tuning his guitar. And some guy who thinks he knows everything declares to the woman next to him that, no that's not Michael, said sternly. And then Margo Timmins, and Jeff Bird and some dude on rhythm guitar just wander up to the stage. No drums, no bass, just Margo's intensely languid vocals, Michael on acoustic and Jeff with the harmonica and mandolin.
They opened the eight-song set with Black Eyed Man. Margo was just so relaxed, sitting on her stool with her left armed draped casually over the mike stand. They were relaxed, but it was hard not to be. As the planets circled around in the dark, and fewer than 200 people sat mesmerized by Margo's voice and Jeff's slow crescendos on the harmonica.
The Cowboy Junkies are not an upbeat band. That much we know. Their sound has always been unfaltering in its country-blues ramblings. The band utilizes some uncommon instrumentation. Especially in this little promotional pre-tour tour where Peter Timmins, the band's drummer, stayed home to "take care of the house," according to Margo.
Margo tells a little story which illustrates not only the Cowboy Junkies sound, but the way in which so many people in this fast paced world just don't know quite how to cope with someone who moves at a slower rate.
She was at WXRT doing an interview and they asked her to do some promo spots, so she was doing her little "Hi, I'm Margo Timmins and you're listening to..." routine. They asked her to do a it couple times and finally, they asked, "Okay, that was great but just do it one more time and this time could you just put a little 'umpf' into it," she says, "So all day I've been trying to figure out just what is 'umpf'," and here she slips into an animated Barbie voice and tries again. Umpf is definitely not a Margo Timmins thing.
So then they move into Sun Comes Up, It's Tuesday Morning. Great song off one of their older albums, the Caution Horses. Very mellow, sic, about waking up and realizing that a former lover is no longer with you. Punctuated by some luscious harmonica this song really has grace and movement, albeit slow movement, but then again, the Cowboy Junkies aren't a rockin' good time, they are just a good time.
This band gets along really well, too. They make it work even though Margo, Michael, and the missing Peter are all brothers and sister. Three of six. Yet there is no sibling rivalry here. "It's important, I think, for a band to have good communication and my brothers and I like each other and know each other well, so it's easy to make decisions. For some odd reason, we like each other," says Margo. Problems do occasionally arise, of course, but Michael explains, "I think you get tired of each other in any band situation or close situation. But that's just part of the nature of being in a band as opposed to a family situation."
Meanwhile, the Earth continued to spin quietly. No, really, there was a huge glowing globe right in the middle of the audience. Margo stopped to take a picture of the audience with it because she had never sung with a globe before.
The show was brief, only eight songs, but it turned out to just be a preview. Look for the Cowboy Junkies to be back in town in early March most likely at the Park West, according to Michael. Margo says that they are trying to get back into the club scene instead of the larger theaters where they had played in recent tours. The Cowboy Junkies like the smaller venues but planetariums? "It's our first planetarium, so I don't have anything to compare it to. You really feel like you're exposed. It was fun, I like the intimacy and being able to see everyone" said Margo after the show. The band hung around for a while and talked to everyone who wanted to say 'Hi' and signed everything put before them. Oddly enough this included several pieces of clothing, some brochures, a dollar bill, a squishy Earth ball, and a slip of paper from seven-year-old Justin's parents which was to explain that his parents really weren't junkies, they just went to hear them.
Then it was off to Newark for them. It would be Margo's birthday. She was hoping to get snowed in so that she could spend the day in Chicago instead of New Jersey. But they will be back in a month or so. Look for them there. They promise to play Sweet Jane if you come. Don't expect an explosive laser light show, but you will see a band good enough to play for all the stars in world.