Canada’s Cowboy Junkies first entranced America with the critically beloved 1988 alt-country album “The Trinity Session,” recorded via a single microphone in a Toronto church and highlighted by a languid cover of Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane.”
The Junkies’ musically diverse 1990s albums showed they were more than a one-church wonder but did not match “Trinity’s” success in the United States. Fuzzy-guitared and unfazed, the band – siblings Margo (vocals), Michael (guitar) and Peter (drums) Timmins, and bass player Alan Anton – remain highly respected in Canada and other pockets of North America, including Grass Valley, Berkeley and San Francisco, where this week’s Junkies shows all sold out. (Grass Valley’s is Friday night at the Center for the Arts). They’re also nearing the 30-year mark as a band, held together in part by family ties.
Unlike bands that “go down in glorious fire, fighting,” the Junkies cannot walk away from each other when things grow heated, Margo Timmins said.
“We are three of six (children), and our parents are still together and very much a part of our lives,” Timmins, 53, said recently by phone from her Toronto home. “There is a sense that if the Junkies end, it can’t end in anger. … This is not to say we haven’t had our disagreements, (but) when things are headed where they shouldn’t go, we have had to give in or just make the peace.”
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It helps that everyone’s Canadian, and thus prone to politeness (Justin Bieber and Rob Ford excepted). Though Timmins’ seductive alto singing voice makes her seem slightly mysterious (in the ’90s, that voice rivaled Sade’s as a makeout-session starter), in conversation she is anything but.
She’s amiable and self-deprecating as she describes the part of a Junkies show when she and Michael fulfill song requests audience members made in advance on the band’s website. Michael and Margo Timmins go acoustic in this section to spare their bandmates the need to rehearse their more obscure numbers. The audience does not get off so easy.
“Sometimes they turn out great, and sometimes they are a total train wreck,” she said of the songs in the show’s request portion. “Some of the requests are songs we’ve forgotten we even did. … It’s just fun for us to kind of pull a ‘How did this go again?’ ”
Fun, like family, is a prevailing factor in the band’s longevity. “We don’t want to lose this,” Timmins said of the continued satisfaction of playing together. “We are never going to get rich, but we never really got into it for that.”
Primary band songwriter Michael Timmins and his bandmates remain so creatively fertile that they put out four albums in 18 months, culminating in the 2012 release “The Wilderness.” One was inspired by Michael Timmins’ trip to China. Another consisted entirely of covers of songs by the late Georgia singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt; another harnesses what Margo Timmins calls “that psychedelic, kind of jamming feel that we do during our shows.” “Wilderness” hewed closest to previous Junkies albums in its mix of soothing cadences and contemplative lyrics. The albums form the box set “The Nomad Series.”
Tom Speed of Paste magazine called the Nomad Series “a sweeping epic that touches on the full range of (Cowboy Junkies’) promise.”
The series represents the band’s musical breadth, Margo Timmins said, although that was not the initial intent. “We wanted to do a lot of things and we thought, ‘Let’s do them all,’ ” she said.
In concert, they usually play all new material in the first set, take a break, then play old favorites.
“Our first set is asking the audience to give a little bit more attention to what we’ve been up to, and the second set is our way of thanking them for (coming),” Margo Timmins said with a laugh. “We went for years not playing ‘Sweet Jane’ unless we felt like it. … Now, because we’ve just asked you to sit through an entire set of new music, we’ll play it for sure.”
The Grass Valley show will follow the newer/older format, but shows scheduled for tonight at San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall and at Berkeley’s Freight & Salvage on Saturday were to feature “Trinity Session” in its entirety. The album turned 25 last year, but the band has not yet celebrated on the West Coast.
Again, family plays a factor. The band members all are parents reluctant to be away from home too long, which means confining most U.S. gigs to the East Coast. Margo Timmins tries never to leave Ed, her 11-year-old son, with husband Graham Henderson, for more than two weeks.
“I find as he gets older, it is harder to leave him,” she said. “I thought it would be the other way around.”