Gig review: Cowboy Junkies at Holmfirth Picturedrome

Cowboy Junkies. Picture: Heather Pollock
Cowboy Junkies. Picture: Heather Pollock
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At the end of the first half of tonight’s generously portioned performance, Margo Timmins thanks the audience for their patience during a set that has so far focused exclusively on new material.

There’ll be old fan favourites after a break, the vocalist promises, before studying the setlist with a mock seriousness. “I think Sweet Jane is in here somewhere.”

Cowboy Junkies might still be most commonly associated with their hushed 1987 take on the Lou Reed/Velvet Underground classic. Being one in a line of Canadian acts who have twisted US music traditions to their own unique shape, the roots of the Toronto quartet are deeper in the soil. The band frequently tackle innovative covers of vintage country and blues tunes; tonight, a resonant take on former tourmate Townes Van Zandt’s Rake pops up on the setlist, alongside versions of Neil Young’s Don’t Let It Bring You Down and David Bowie’s Five Years that stick uncommonly close to the originals.

There have been times when the band’s distinctive, judiciously chosen covers – transported into an otherworldly realm by Timmins’ voice, which continues to operate on a register of permanent heartbreak – have threatened to overshadow their original material. Infused with hues of Nick Cave-an murder balladry and traditional American folk song forms, selections from last year’s All That Reckoning sound fresher and more potent than you would have any right to expect from a band that has produced 15 studio albums in the 32 years since their landmark second offering Trinity Sessions, a slow motion landmark recorded around a single microphone in a church.

It’s also keeping with the band’s penchant for overcast mood of ever-present trouble and strife: Timmins can only be half-joking when he apologises for the couple who have brought her the flowers that decorate the threadbare stage (as is their custom, the band remain seated throughout: nearest the quintet get to rock action is when Timmins gets up to shuffle at the back of the stage whilst sipping a cup of tea) for her inability to thank them with a song, as they are all too miserable for that purpose.

Cowboy Junkies have become a sturdier proposition since their murmured origins, sometimes to their detriment: although it’s understandable the band (who retain their original line-up of the three Timmins siblings and bassist Alan Anton) wouldn’t want to play their signature tune the exact same way for the millionth time, tonight’s turbulent interpretation of Sweet Jane sacrifices some of the original’s hypnotic pull for more conventional rock and roll dynamics.

They’re more compelling when dealing with restraint and eventual, gradual release: the muscular, skeletal blues groove of Postcard Blues – elevated by long-time auxiliary multi-instrumentalist Jeff Bird’s bracing harmonica – in particular is a startlingly electrifying example of a band who appear enduringly immune to ageing making the most of a few sparse, judiciously selected ingredients.