Nineteen years ago, my friend and neighbor Marc appeared in my freshman dorm room late one evening, breathless and excited. Without explanation, he stopped the music that was playing and switched the CD for the one he was carrying. Moments later, I heard for the first time the wonderful voice of Margo Timmins, as she performed The Velvet Underground’s Sweet Jane on the Cowboy Junkies 1988 record The Trinity Session. The whole album is enthralling, and I was hooked immediately. Back in an age before CD burning, the only way to continue my fix was to buy my own copy, which I did right away. I listened that record to death, and then in sophomore year we added the next album, Caution Horses, to the CJ rotation.
All this time later, I have carefully accumulated sixteen of their albums, and assorted other tracks from various live performances. I am prepared to discuss their varied arrangements and the evolving themes that appear in their work. Yet in all this time, I have never had a chance to see them perform live.
I had told myself that on their next tour, I would address this shortcoming, and so learned of their current tour with real pleasure. Months ago, I purchased the tickets for the April 1 show, and slowly but surely that day arrived yesterday. The band was booked in a venue I have never attended before – the Scottish Rite Auditorium in Collingswood, New Jersey, which is located southeast of Camden, across the Delaware River from Philadelphia.
We drove up in light rain last night, and navigated our way through a series of towns which may have a lot to offer, but in the damp twilight looked decidedly bleak. The auditorium is easy to find however, despite New Jersey’s addiction to roundabouts, and it is a very handsome structure. Apparently the house out front belonged to one William Leonard Hurley, who built it in 1914. A merchant, Mr. Hurley ran a department store chain headquartered in Camden. He died in 1928 and in 1930, the grounds of his house were given to a Masonic organization called the Excelsior Scottish Rite. In turn, they built the auditorium in 1931. The cornerstone is shown here (all pictures credited to their photographers via link).
Apparently, the auditorium has been used for public events since 2003, under the aegis of the Camden County Board of Freeholders. More power to them – it is terrific to see a building like this serve new roles as the world changes around it. I know nothing about Scottish Rite masonry, but the iconography and the numerology apparent all over the building are very compelling, and I have no doubt a tour of the place would be full of wonderful details and history. One can learn a mind-numbing amount of detail on the topic on the web – start here. Suffice it to say I believe the Freeholders when they say David Crosby called it the coolest place he’d ever played.
Once we parked and headed inside, the ushers quickly seated us and we were introduced to Lee Harvey Osmond, who opened for the CJs. I am not sure he is really my thing, so I will not go into any detail about Mr. Osmond. He alluded to what an odd place we were all in, and – in honor of that – performed an a cappella rendition of a John Henry song that was both incredibly odd and yet, inexplicably, powerfully authentic. It made you feel like you were in a Kentucky big tent revival in the 1870s, if only for a moment. Then the Canadian acid folk came back in force.
Fortunately, after this came the main act, and the CJs came on stage in good form. They opened with A Common Disaster, from the 1996 Lay It Down. They followed that up with another track from the same album – Hold on to Me. This is one of my favorites, and I had not imagined they would play two such old tracks, so this was a real treat. To my further surprise, they concluded the opening triplet with the title track from that album as well.
Following the opening trio came a new, unrecorded track – Confessions of Georgie, I think – which Margo explained was one of the ones they have recently written for their next record. They then harkened back to 1992 with the title track from Black Eyed Man. Building on the theme of tales of dark men, they closed this trio with Simon Keeper, from the 2004 One Soul Now.
Without missing a beat, the band launched into Good Friday next, from the 1998 Miles from Our Home. Given how much jumping forward and backward jumping they were doing from their catalog, I was surprised and delighted to hear Alan Anton on bass move right into the beginning of Working on a Building, which is one of the tracks from the Trinity Session. Margo was quick to draw the parallel between that song and the auditorium in which we sat, which she described as spooky.
Much of the band left the stage at this point, leaving Margo and her older brother Michael, who then played two acoustic songs which were the gems of the evening for me. Angels in the Wilderness was billed by Margo as her favorite among the new songs, and the third new song of the night, Fairytale, was my favorite of the three we heard.
With the band rejoining them, Margo dedicated the next song to her son Ed – appropriately enough My Wild Child from One Soul Now. They moved from there to This Street, That Man, This Life from Black Eyed Man.
They concluded with Lay It Down’s Just Want to See, Trinity Session’s I Don’t Get It, and a spectacular Follower 2, from the 2007 At the End of Paths Taken. I am still coming to terms with that final record, but this closing song was performed with tremendous force, grace, and emotion that renewed my interest in the whole album from which it emerged.
The audience applauded loudly following the band’s departure from the stage, and they rewarded us with one encore track. Given our location in New Jersey, their choice of Springsteen’s State Trooper made perfect sense, but greedy fan that I am, I was disappointed they did not choose Thunder Road, which I find to be an exceptional cover.
In closing, I should mention the fact that my wife and I were distinctly aware, as the show progressed, how often various members of the band gestured offstage for changes in the sound system. Having done a little sound in college, I can say that it sounded off to me – Margo often seemed distant and lost among the instruments. Armed with her signature tea and a shawl, I also think her performance was at times hesitant, and I wondered if she was protecting her voice following a cold. No matter what the cause, it made me doubly grateful for the acoustic tracks and Follower 2, which were spot on.
I am too much of a fan to begin to be objective enough to assess the show, but I am delighted I went, and I very much hope to see them all again for many more years to come.