Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Unplugged in Renmin Park

This past weekend I was privileged to sit down in the studio with Michael and Margo Timmins, guitarist and vocalist of one of Canada's musical institutions (and one of my favourite bands), Cowboy Junkies. They played Saturday night at Bimbo's 365 Club, a San Francisco "institution" that Michael describes in his tour diary as having "that 1950’s Gentlemen’s Club vibe, complete with painted Vargas style pinup girls on the walls and a signed photo of Liberace in the lobby."

Renmin ParkIt was the last date of a brief tour supporting their most recent album, Renmin Park. The record came out of the three months that Michael and his family spent in China, where he captured field recordings of sounds from vegetable vendors to musicians in the park. Some of these are integrated into the music on the album, which is extremely adventurous -- one track includes a vocal by Chinese rock star and renaissance man Zuoxiao Zuzhou (who authors another track on the record). Michael and Margo didn't attempt to recreate that song when they played a few tunes for us in the studio, but what they did play was similarly stirring.

Whites Off Earth NowThe Junkies have always held a special interest for me, both musically and (pardon my French) socio-introspectively. The Timmins grew up in Montreal -- my hometown -- but left just before the Parti Québécois came to power in the mid 1970s (though, as I learned this weekend, for reasons not directly related to the political situation). They're indelibly associated with Toronto and its active post-punk music scene of the mid-80s. And yet that first Cowboy Junkies album, Whites Off Earth Now, has some of the most inventive and compelling blues covers I know. Margo describes that record as all groove -- no chord changes, lyrics of no consequence -- although Michael noted how the structure of blues music can distract from the "heaviness" of, say, a Robert Johnson lyric.

Anyway, tune in to KALW this Wednesday 9-11 pm (pacific) to hear more, including those in-studio acoustic performances of songs from the new album. Here's something of a promo:

video

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