Cowboy Junkies, Ghosts (Latent Recordings)

Most people, if they know Cowboy Junkies at all, came to them via what I am duty-bound to call their “sophomore” album, 1988’s The Trinity Session. Famously recorded live in a Toronto church off a single microphone, the album has become the group’s most popular and enduring recording for its hushed ambience, its inspired mix of covers and originals and, in particular, its definitive take on The Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane”. True to form, though, I was slow to wake up to the group, and only got on the bus with the follow-up, 1990’s The Caution Horses. But it was that record, which I regard as not only better than The Trinity Session but as Cowboy Junkies’ best album ever, that made me a fan of the group for life. It’s remarkable that they’re still here 30 years later, still with the same line-up and still making albums of impeccable quality, of which Ghosts is just the latest. The album had a very specific gestation, of which more in a moment. First, though, and since this is primarily a blog about live concerts, a little reminiscence.

Although Cowboy Junkies are still an active live group, it’s been many years since I last saw them. Culturally speaking, I suspect that is not a particularly good fit in Austria and Switzerland, the two countries where I’ve lived for the past fifteen years. The group are still very popular in the UK, though, and indeed I saw them several times in London and Brighton in the 1990s and early 2000s. I remember two such occasions very well, in sharply contrasting venues. In 1992 they played the Royal Albert Hall on the Black-Eyed Man tour, and very effectively took control of that beautiful yet cavernous venue.

Four years later, on the back of the superb Lay It Down album, I saw the group at the Mean Fiddler in Harlesden, north-west London. The other week I wrote about 1990s London being my golden age of concert-going, and indeed the Mean Fiddler and its adjoining Acoustic Room was a place I returned to time and time again. The fact that Cowboy Junkies were playing such a small venue was certainly not a sign of their appeal becoming more selective, since the show was sold out many times over. Instead I seem to remember it was part of a week of special concerts by artists who normally played much larger venues, and indeed my recently unearthed 1996 gig diary confirms that I saw The Divine Comedy (another group who could normally be relied upon to fill much larger venues than the Mean Fiddler) the day after the Junkies concert. Queueing up outside the Mean Fiddler before the concert in order to get a good spot (a habit I retain to this day), it was a very pleasant surprise to see all four members of the group walk out of the venue, no doubt on their way to some pre-concert meal or other. My copy of Lay It Down was duly signed.

Fast forward 24 years and Cowboy Junkies are back with a new album, Ghosts, currently available only on streaming services. The story goes that, shortly after the release of 2018’s excellent All That Reckoning album, the mother of the Timmins siblings (who together make up three-quarters of Cowboy Junkies) sadly passed away. In the aftermath of her passing, the group started working on a batch of new songs that, in their words, “deal with the ultimate reckoning, the reckoning that comes with the death of a loved one and the reassessing that one goes through as one tries to process such a loss.” The original intention was to release these songs as part of a double vinyl set along with a remastered and reissued All That Reckoning. With Covid-19 putting paid to that plan, the group decided to release the new songs anyway.

Musically, Ghosts breaks little new ground for Cowboy Junkies. The group’s sound is still built around Margo Timmins’ gorgeous voice, which slides like honey over Michael Timmins’ emotionally wrought guitar and Peter Timmins’ unerring percussion. “Slides like honey”, by the way, is in reference to Neil Young’s famous “honey slides”, a snooze-inducing combination of marijuana and honey that was apparently consumed heavily during the On The Beach sessions. Not that I’ve ever tried one, but I’d like to think that the effect of this concoction is not unlike the narcotized bliss of Cowboy Junkies at their most mellow. Check out, by the way, their magnificent cover of one of my favourite Neil Young songs, “Helpless”, on the bonus disc of 2004’s One Soul Now.

Lyrically, too, there are no major surprises in store. Michael Timmins has long been one of the most profoundly literate and affecting lyricists in rock, his texts resonant with absence, loss and regret. And here in these songs Timmins speaks bravely and eloquently about one of the most traumatic experiences anyone can undergo, the death of a parent. As Margo sings with paralysing self-doubt on “Desire Lines”: “Was it love that drew us in? Was it love that she’d impart? All I know is that these ghosts, piece by piece, are pulling me apart.” Elsewhere, the sepulchral, piano-led “Breathing” could almost serve as an epitaph for those lost to Covid-19: “I watched your chest and stomach heaving, I know this is not right.” Of course, the group also know how to cut loose when they want to. “(You Don’t Get To) Do It Again” is a fiery rocker with an insanely catchy refrain and searing guitar from Timmins, while “This Dog Barks” is marked by furious riffing and hectic fiddle work.

The problem is that at just over 30 minutes long, the album feels frustratingly slight. What’s more, of its eight tracks, two are basically superfluous. One song, “The Possessed”, was already released on the CD, but not the vinyl version, of All That Reckoning – which is presumably why it’s now been added to what was originally planned as a vinyl-only release. Lyrically chilling, its presence on Ghosts nevertheless feels unearned due to its piffling ukulele accompaniment – an objection that applies even more forcefully to the album’s closer, “Ornette Coleman”, which has the dubious distinction of being possibly the most inconsequential song Cowboy Junkies have ever put their name to. The rest is fine stuff, although it will certainly make more sense in its originally intended form as an appendix to All That Reckoning than it does as an album in its own right.

The Necks, Three (Fish of Milk)

Having experienced one of my best concert-going experiences of last year with The Necks at AMR, it was a no-brainer to pick up their latest and (by my reckoning) 16th album, Three. The album contains three tracks, and The Necks have three members. What’s more, the three tracks all clock in at around the 21-22 minute mark and hence would fit perfectly on a side of vinyl (although the album is, for the moment at least, only available on CD). All of this may or may not be coincidental.

As is by now well known, The Necks’ live performances are an accretive, totally improvised mix of piano, bass and drums, developing over the course of two 45-50 minute sets from quiet soloing to full trio sections. In the studio the group take a variety of different approaches, including other instruments being overdubbed. I’m certainly not familiar with their whole body of work, but Three seems as good a place to start as any.

Opening track “Bloom” in particular roams far from the blueprint of the group’s live style, based as it is on a blistering percussive attack, virtually unidentifiable in origin but presumably the handiwork of drummer Tony Buck. This mysterious, truculent force threatens to overwhelm the whole piece, but is finally kept in check by the diamond-hard pianistics of Chris Abrahams and by Lloyd Swanton’s seething bass runs. Occasional, exceedingly subtle sounds coming from what sounds like an analogue synthesizer only serve to deepen the mood of furrowed intensity that sustains the piece. There’s something truly miraculous about “Bloom”, a hinting at transcendence that stems (no pun intended) from its relentless forward motion and its extended durational perspective. Which is just another way of saying: it rocks.

Things get taken down several notches on “Lovelock”, a tribute to the late Damien Lovelock of the Australian group Celibate Rifles. This piece has an eerie, almost Nurse With Wound-like ambience, haunted by flickering chimes and ominous percussive interventions. Stricken by grief and loss, “Lovelock” barely manages to sustain a pulse, yet grips the listener with spare, incisive drum rolls from Buck and ghostly piano from Abrahams. From the murk and gloom there emerges a quiet, lovingly etched memorial to a departed friend.

If “Bloom” highlights The Necks’ avant rock tendencies, while “Lovelock” nods towards their industrial and dark ambient influences, then “Further” illustrates why the group still have one foot in the jazz tradition. Yet it’s a take on jazz like no other, with Abrahams’ shimmering piano positioned at shifting angles to Swanton’s sinuous bass riffing and Buck’s magisterially driven percussion. Recalling “Bloom”’s dense mosaic of sound, here Buck transmits a tense rhythmic foundation that flows seductively through the piece’s 21 minutes. Guitar and Hammond organ weave hazily in and out, as if reanimated by the group’s insistence on duration. Indeed, it’s this urge towards reanimation that goes to the heart not only of “Further” but of Three as a whole. Constantly transforming yet enduring as three into one, The Necks continue to amaze and delight.

Gavin Bryars, Geneva Casino Theatre, 5 February 2019

Out of all the concerts I never got around to reviewing during this blog’s long period of inactivity, last year’s visit to Geneva by the British composer Gavin Bryars was definitely one of the highlights. So it makes sense to start at the top when trying to make up for lost time during this current period of enforced isolation.

I can’t remember where I first heard Bryars’ two minimalist masterpieces The Sinking of the Titanic and Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet, both of which were performed in Geneva. I do remember attending a concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in 1994 or so, at which Bryars and his ensemble performed an extended version of The Sinking of the Titanic. This was, I believe, the same version of the piece that was later released on CD on Point Music – a label associated with Philip Glass, fact fans.

Somewhat to my chagrin, Bryars had not brought his ensemble with him to Geneva. Nor did he play or conduct during the evening, his input consisting as far as I could tell of sound projection, mixing or some such from the back of the hall. The performers came instead from the Nouvel Ensemble Contemporain and the Haute École de Musique in Geneva. But there was absolutely nothing lacking in their flawless interpretations of both pieces.

The Sinking of the Titanic is perhaps the saddest piece of music I’ve ever heard. As is by now well known, it takes as its starting point the recollection of several survivors of the disaster that the ship’s band did not abandon their station, but continued to play as the ship sank slowly into the Atlantic Ocean. Bryars imagined the sound continuing to reverberate as it disappeared under the waves, resulting in a slow, melancholy unfolding that interwove exquisite threads of melody with haunting fragments of spoken testimony from survivors of the tragedy. As the unnerving strains of violins, violas, cello and double bass descended further into the depths, the piece achieved a desolate beauty that was utterly overwhelming.

After the interval, it was the turn of Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet. This, of course, is the piece that achieved a certain public profile in 1993 when Bryars recorded an extended version with Tom Waits singing the words of the homeless man. As one who has always remained steadfastly immune to the gravelly charms of Waits’ voice, that version is for me entirely superfluous when compared to the original 25-minute version, featuring Michael Nyman on organ and Derek Bailey on guitar, that was released on Brian Eno’s Obscure label in 1975 with The Sinking of the Titanic on the other side. In Geneva, the NEC’s performance amply met the requirement of Bryars’ score that “the performance should be undramatic, understated and subdued, without pomp or show”. Perfectly catching the piece’s undertone of quiet optimism, the music swelled and receded with stark precision around the central recorded loop.

In the bar after the concert, I asked Bryars to sign my original copy of that 1975 release. We chatted about free improvisation, Cornelius Cardew and AMM, and about his never-ending quest for a supply of Aztec Scoremaster 101 pencils. (The interesting story behind this quest can be read on Bryars’ website.) In the weeks before the Geneva concert, I had scoured eBay and other websites in the hope of securing a box of these precious items. It would have been lovely to surprise Bryars by presenting him with such a box, but it was not to be. Still, I’ll keep looking. And if you ever come across a box of Aztec Scoremaster 101 pencils, preferably in yellow, well, you know where to send them.

1996: my year in concerts

As an addendum to my post the other day in which I reminisced about London concertgoing in the 1990s, I recently dug up my gig diary for 1996. I have no idea if I actually went to all of these, but the list gives some idea of how enjoyable those times were. As expected, Peter Hammill and Tindersticks scored highly. It’s good to see a brace of appearances by The Cowboy Junkies, whom I would dearly love to see again someday. And I must have really liked The Divine Comedy, since I saw them four times that year. In fact I remember the October event well, since it was their big orchestral concert at Shepherds Bush Empire. Across town at the Festival Hall on the same evening, Towering Inferno were doing their awe-inspiring multimedia show Kaddish – a clash of dates that led to much agonized hand-wringing on my part. Since I’d already seen Kaddish the year before (at Shepherds Bush Empire, ironically enough), I elected not to see it again and plumped for The Divine Comedy instead – a decision I now regret. Strangest gig on the list: Aphex Twin at Clink Prison. And finally, a big hello and thanks to Tim Keegan, whom I saw more than anyone else that year.


8 – Tim Keegan
19 – Tindersticks
22 – Tim Keegan
28 – Foetus


20 – Martin Stephenson, Tim Keegan
23 – :zoviet*france:
28 – Michael Gira


4 – Boo Hewerdine, Tim Keegan
8 – Main
14 – Stereolab, Tortoise
16 – The Divine Comedy
29 – Heather Nova


13 – Natalie Merchant
16 – Bruce Springsteen


3 – The Divine Comedy
12 – Scanner, Robert Hampton
17 – Peter Hammill
24 – Cowboy Junkies
30 – Experimental Audio Research, Stereolab


5 – Tim Keegan
6 – 10,000 Maniacs
10 – Lloyd Cole
28 – His Name is Alive


27 – Elvis Costello


7 – Cowboy Junkies
8 – The Divine Comedy
30 – James Dillon et al.


5 – Tortoise, Flying Saucer Attack


10 – Lisa Germano, Mojave 3
20 – The Divine Comedy
31 – Aphex Twin


3 – Peter Hammill
9 – Tindersticks
14 – AMM

The Unthanks, Thame Towersey Festival, 23 August 2019

Here’s a flashback to sunnier, happier times. It’s not often that you’ll catch me at an outdoor music festival, but I’m happy to make an exception for Towersey, a smallish folk-based affair sitting pretty near the Oxfordshire market town of Thame. Family connections in the area have brought me to Towersey on a number of occasions, most notably in 2007 when I saw the great English folk singer John Tams of Home Service in a duo setting with his long-time collaborator Barry Coope. I didn’t cross paths with Tams again until 2011, when Home Service played a series of triumphant reunion concerts that reasserted their position as the lost heroes of British electric folk music. Tams left the group a few years ago, following which they lost their way somewhat, but lately he seems to have rejoined. I hope to see them again one day, but I’m not holding my breath. Anyway, I digress.

Towersey Festival has weathered a few storms in recent years, including a change of location in 2015 and another one on the horizon this year. Nevertheless it remains a very pleasant place to spend an August Bank Holiday weekend, with a great family-friendly vibe, good bars and stalls, and (most importantly) its feet firmly planted in the living tradition of English folk music. On a warm, sunny evening last August, then, I was very happy to make the acquaintance of The Unthanks for the first time. A standing-room-only audience saw this gifted group of singers and musicians cast a decidedly uncanny spell, their bewitching voices echoing around the large tent to spellbinding effect.

Right from the off, The Unthanks declared an affinity with the music of the present by covering a Richard Dawson song, “We Picked Apples In A Graveyard Freshly Mowed”. This stunning a capella number set the tone perfectly for the evening, its terrorstruck imagery (“I awake to the screech of a fox in the street/Carrying your soul in its teeth through the snow”) inscribed in every breath of the forlorn harmonies uttered by sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank and co-singer Niopha Keegan.

As the concert progressed, the full range of the group’s influences and parallels became clear as The Unthanks traced a path through a rich and vibrant seam of mythical English culture. There were songs based on poems by Emily Brontë (“The soft unclouded blue of air”, “Shall earth no more inspire thee”), a song by Molly Drake, the mother of Nick (“What can a song do to you?”) and the group’s take on Elvis Costello’s classic “Shipbuilding”. YouTube tells me that The Unthanks’ repertoire also includes a ravishing cover of King Crimson’s “Starless”, which I would happily have traded for what was in truth a rather inert version of “Shipbuilding”. No-one sings “Shipbuilding” like Costello, not The Unthanks (despite their north-eastern roots) and certainly not Robert Wyatt, the universal acclaim for whose version I find frankly baffling.

Most dramatically, the group reached for a song from Lines: Part One, their 2018 tribute to the Hull-born fisheries worker and campaigner Lillian Bilocca with lyrics by the acclaimed British actor Maxine Peake. “A Whistling Woman” saw Keegan’s exquisite violin and Adrian McNally’s stinging piano lines thread their way through the singers’ sinister invocation of Peake’s text: “A man may do a thousand things, but a whistling woman may bring the Devil out of his den.” It was the kind of moment that brought a pitiless chill to an otherwise cloudless summer’s evening.