Whenever I attend the Birchmere in Alexandria VA, I always glance to my right as I enter the parking lot, where the overflow parking is located. If the crowd is going to be light, the additional parking is closed, blocked with chains. Last Wednesday, the additional parking was very much open and very much filling up when I arrived about a half hour before the show. At first, my photographer and I had some trouble finding a place to sit, but my keen eyes spotted the front two seats of a table, and we joined some lovely people for the evening. (I joked with the friendly lady at our table, who works at local public broadcaster WETA, that I wanted her to ask someone to bring back the PBS show WonderWorks, a children’s anthology series which produced adaptations of the first four installments of The Chronicles of Narnia.)
The Birchmere has been showcasing live roots music for over 50 years. In 1966, Gary Oelze bought a small bar and restaurant with a capacity of 100 in a South Arlington shopping center. He added live music, at first just one night a week, to increase his business. Driven by interest in bluegrass, and the residency of the band Seldom Scene, the Birchmere grew steadily, and it now resides in its third location in neighboring Alexandria, in a building which holds 500 guests. The late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was a frequent guest, especially for bluegrass shows.
For this night’s show, its worth mentioning that Americana music is not limited to America. There’s a UK Americana Association, European Americana charts, and many great Americana acts, such as Neil Young and The Band (except for Levon Helm), have come out of Canada. The Cowboy Junkies, who are neither cowboys nor junkies, are part of this tradition. Touring behind their latest album, All That Reckoning, they performed their Townes Van Zandt-inspired alternative country-rock style before a packed audience at Alexandria, Virginia’s Birchmere.
The Cowboy Junkies, made up of three Timmins siblings (songwriter and guitarist Michael, dummer Peter, and vocalist Margo) and bassist Alan Anton, played two sets with no opening act. Their first set, bookended by “All That Reckoning” Parts 1 and 2, featured songs from the new album. The second set, which included a cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane,” featured a swathe of material from across the band’s 30-plus year career.
Prior to attending this concert, I was unaware of Margo Timmin’s continuing battle with stage fright. Early in the band’s career, Margo would often sing with her back turned to the audience. Over time, she has developed a routine to manage her fear: she irons her dress before the show, and flowers are placed next to her stool on stage as a visual cue to focus. At one point in the concert, the lights flashed blindingly, and Margo half-joked, “Look at the flowers, look at the flowers.” I mistakenly thought that she was drinking tea because of a sore throat or a cold, but this, too, is part of her ritual.
The Cowboy Junkies formed in Toronto in the mid ’80s. Childhood friends Michael Timmins and Alan Anton had played in several bands together, and the Cowboy Junkies came together with the addition of Peter and Margo, who had been considering graduate study in social work. They broke through with their second album, The Trinity Sessions, recorded in Toronto’s Church of the Holy of Trinity, a building with fantastic natural reverb, which has recently been remastered. Their latest album, All That Reckoning, is their 16th studio album, and they’ve released five studio albums. [For our review of that album click any of these bolded words right here.] The performance was wonderful, and I suggest you investigate them, and their new album, here. https://www.cowboyjunkies.com/