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Quiet Storm

By Kirsten Ferguson

Cowboy Junkies, Lee Harvey Osmond

Revolution Hall, May 7

After 20-plus years as a band, Canada’s Cowboy Junkies are still known best outside their home country for 1988’s The Trinity Sessions, an album recorded in a single night on one microphone at Toronto’s Church of the Holy Trinity, giving it a haunting vibe and an acoustically airy feel. Although “Misguided Angel,” an original from the album, was a classic in its own right, Cowboy Junkies distinguished themselves most on the sessions with a handful of smoky covers, including an extra-mournful rendition of Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and a languid reworking of the Velvet Underground’s “Sweet Jane.”

They didn’t play their version of the Lou Reed classic at Revolution Hall, but some of the most memorable tunes played by the Junkies during their Friday night show in Troy also happened to be covers, elevated by the band’s ability to transform already-great tunes with Canadian iciness and slow-burning heat. In front of a backdrop of a bobcat walking on a frozen lake, the band hit their sweet spot on a sultry version of the Rolling Stones’ “Moonlight Mile,” enhanced by Aaron Goldstein’s sorrowful pedal steel, and on a great interpretation of “Don’t Let It Bring You Down,” by their fellow countryman Neil Young.

That’s not to downplay Cowboy Junkies’ original songs, of which there were many highlights, plucked from a handful of the band’s 10-plus albums and new material from the just released Renmin Park. Bathed in violet-blue light, singer Margo Timmins—seated on a tall stool—hung her head over the microphone on a subdued but beautiful version of “Southern Rain” from their Black Eyed Man album; a couple in the crowd blissfully slow danced to “Misguided Angel,” their love-gone-bad masterpiece; and the band revved up the heat on “A Common Disaster,” the first song of the night to sacrifice calibrated mellowness for rocking abandon.

Margo Timmins’ brother Michael, seated on guitar, has always been the band’s primary songwriter, so it was a bit comical when she forgot to introduce him after calling attention to every other member of the band (including her younger brother Peter on drums, longtime bassist Alan Anton and multi-instrumentalist Jeff Bird and newer addition Goldstein). It wasn’t a shtick either, she just seemed a bit distracted—charmingly so—at that point (she mentioned her seven year-old called her before the show about some playground troubles).

The rest of the time, the Junkies’ aura of carefully cultivated civility prevailed. Timmins sipped tea next to a table holding a vase of flowers and politely asked the crowd, her voice barely above a whisper, to stay quiet during a brief acoustic set of the mandolin-tinged “This Street, That Man, This Life,” an intense cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “Lungs,” and the new album’s title track (“Renmin Park”). The crowd, for the most part, was well-behaved. Timmins—whose intimidating reserve melted as she rambled a bit about the band’s Web site and her new-found Twittering—made them an offer: “If you stick around after the show I’d love to chat. I’ll talk about anything but hockey.”

Opener Lee Harvey Osmond, a band from Ontario, Canada, featuring charismatic frontman Tom Wilson (and Cowboy Junkies’ members Bird and Goldstein) were billed as “acid-folk” but sounded more like raging gothic roots-rock during the unfortunately brief portion of their set I saw. Great-sounding stuff. “If you liked the show, you’ll love this. It’s stoner music,” Wilson said, hawking his band’s CD to a group of people, unexpectedly blown away by his performance, crowded around the merch table after the show.

Funny Folk

Austin Lounge Lizards

Caffe Lena, May 7

Seventeen years had gone by since the Austin Lounge Lizards, the fun-pokin’ pickers from Texas now celebrating their 30th year together, had played Caffe Lena, or “Caffe Layna” as they kept mispronouncing it. It’s too bad they haven’t been around more often, Southern speech impediments and all, because the quintet occupies a unique niche in acoustic music: Their stock in trade is satirical and often leftist, politically themed songs backed by tasty bluegrass instrumentation. Given how butt-ugly national politics has gotten lately, the Lizards’ merciless lampoonery was, for me at least, much-welcome comic relief.

The group’s three original members are Hank Card on rhythm guitar, Conrad Deisler on lead guitar, and Tom Pittman on banjo and Dobro. Fiddle and mandolin whiz Darcy Deaville joined in 2008; electric bassist Bruce Jones came on board earlier this year. All of them sing. They have won honors five times at the Austin Music Awards, and their rendition of Irving Berlin’s “(I’ll See You in) C-U-B-A,” can be heard in Michael Moore’s film Sicko.

The Lizards opened with Lindsey Eck’s “Too Big to Fail,” a populist swipe at the Federal bank bailout. “I want to be too big to fail, I want to steal and not go to jail,” sang Card. Tom Paxton had already used that idea in 1980, though, with “I Am Changing My Name to Chrysler,” written after Congress loaned the ailing auto giant $1.5 billion during the Carter administration.

“Life is hard, but life is hardest when you’re dumb,” began the next tune, sung by Pittman. At first I thought the song a bit unkind—hey, we can’t all be smart enough to choose the glamorous and lucrative career of a traveling folk musician. I stanched my bleeding heart later on when the band bandied Sarah Palin’s name about.

“Jesus Loves Me (But He Can’t Stand You!)” took aim at Christian fundamentalism. With lines like “God loves all his children, by gum. That doesn’t mean he won’t incinerate some,” the song mocked what the Lizards obviously see as the absurdities of Biblical literalism.

“Teenage Immigrant Welfare Mothers on Drugs” was another satirical broadside, which derided the scapegoating of illegal immigrants by the far right, and compared the US-Mexico border fence to the Berlin wall.

Funniest of all, however, was the nonpolitical “Hey Little Minivan,” a send-up of the Beach Boys’ “Little Deuce Coupe” sung by Card. Replete with cooing back-up harmonies, the juxtaposition of the wild kid whipping around hairpin turns in his fuel- injected hot rod who grows up to be a tame, middle-aged guy boasting of his SUV’s climate control and lumbar support seats was a scream.

Gotta laugh to keep from crying over the news headlines? Then these jaundiced-eyed jokers are your guys.

—Glenn Weiser

Life Story

Taj Mahal Trio, Fredericks Brown

The Egg, May 6

Now in his late sixties, Taj Mahal has become one of the elder statemen of the blues. Thankfully, this is not the blues that became a reductive form when it made its way up the Mississippi and got electrified. Ever since Henry St. Claire Fredericks reinvented himself as Taj Mahal, his explorations have been not only the rural sources of the blues, but also its antecedents. The music’s Caribbean and African roots have formed an important part of Mahal’s musical identity; it’s no surprise that Mahal and fellow musical seeker Ry Cooder found each other once Mahal moved to Los Angeles from Massachusetts in the mid-1960s. Their band, Rising Suns, though signed to Columbia, was short-lived, and their inclinations were too overlapping to have made for a long lasting collaboration.

Last week’s performance at the Egg was a perfect night in every regard. Taj Mahal’s long-running trio with drummer Kester Smith and bassist Bill Rich is a finely tuned rhythmic creature, able to leap, dance, slither and gallop. Mahal himself was so completed committed to the moment that, though there was an order they were following, the 90 minutes felt full of surprises. (“Did I just do that with my guitar?!” “Did I just do those dance steps?!”) An exemplary soloist, Mahal eschews the stridency of Chicago blues and its spotlight on soloing, for a more idiosyncratic (and ultimately, believable) urge to instrumentalize what words simply cannot.

The opening band, Fredericks Brown, were an unknown entity, and they managed the rare feat of completely winning over the room. By their third song it was clear you were in the presence of some remarkable artists. (For me, this always harks back to seeing John Malkovich and Gary Sinise in a performance of Sam Sheppard’s True West at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater in the early ’80s—it was undeniable that you were in the presence of talent that would not be contained there for long.)

Taj’s daughter, singer Deva Mahal, is co-leader of the band, along with keyboardist Steph Brown. The pair met in Brown’s native New Zealand and the band came into focus with guitarist Michael Taylor and drummer Logan Baldwin. (Bass is handled on the keyboard.) Influences range from Nina Simone and Sly and the Family Stone to more contemporary groove-based ensembles, but they really made it all their own. Mahal’s youngest daughter, Zoe, was also on hand as backup vocalist for the set. The two sisters joined Taj’s trio for a stirring encore of “Lovin’ in Baby’s Eyes.” They sang the chorus as “daddy’s eyes,” his vocalizing of “baby” taking on deeper meaning as one generation follows another—the tree of life as it were, exactly what Taj Mahal has been seeking in music as well for 50 years.

—David Greenberger

Chicks? They’re free.

Photo: John Whipple

Dire Straits main man Mark Knopfler brought his current tour through downtown Albany on Sunday. The guitarist and singer is currently traveling in support of his 2009 album, Get Lucky, though his set reportedly included songs from both his solo and band careers. Metroland fun fact: Mark Knopfler once scored a film called Metroland.



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