Cowboy Junkies with the Boston Pops at Symphony Hall on June 23

A review of the Cowboy Junkies with the Boston Pops at Symphony Hall on June 23, 2007

, Staff Writer

When you get a new toy you want to play with it, not put it on the shelf and look at it. I would think the same applies to playing with the Boston Pops; if you have a symphony orchestra behind you, you want them playing, not watching you and twiddling their bows. But Cowboy Junkies have always done things their way, and Saturday night at Symphony Hall that meant playing half their songs with the symphony, and half on their own.

The band took the stage with “Brand New World,” the first song off their new album, At the End of Paths Taken. The song developed slowly, and the orchestra’s contributions were not felt until the accelerated bridge. It sounded like the band and the orchestra had been playing together for years.

Turns out, At the End of Paths Taken already had string arrangements ready to go. “We have a new record and it has string arrangement,” announced lead singer Margo Timmins. “This is the first time we’ve played with strings, and it sounds like the record.” Those prior string arrangements came from Henry Kucharzyk, not EdgeFest’s arranger Sean O’Loughlin, and it was clear that the band felt comfortable with the pieces that they had already heard. “Spiral Down,” also from the new album, was much more subdued than “Brand New World,” and the orchestra work was rather generic.

Timmins’ openness gave the night a VH1 Storytellers type of feel, bringing intimacy to the sophisticated confines of Symphony Hall. “We’re not known for our happy songs,” the singer said, introducing “Sun Comes Up, It’s Tuesday Morning." “This next one is as happy as it gets in our repertoire. It’s about breaking up with someone and being really, really happy about it.” Unfortunately, this was the first of many tunes that the symphony did not play on. Conductor Keith Lockhart sat slouched next to his podium as the musicians, picking at their instruments and looking bored, sat outside of the spotlights.

“’Cause Cheap is How I Feel” was the strongest Junkies solo performance of the night, a bluesy tune which featured an unexpectedly distorted mandolin solo by Jeff Bird and an even better distorted guitar solo from Michael Timmins. The symphony joined back in for “Miles From Our Home,” and instantly the energy of the show jumped up. The Pops were heavily accenting the rhythm of the drums, but Bird’s harmonica solo strongly cut through the 90+ musicians.

Again, however, the uneven pacing of the show reared its head as the Cowboy Junkies covered Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” sans Pops. The song was hauntingly and beautifully depressing, as Margo Timmins’ deep, smoky voice and Bird’s mandolin as slide guitar carried the song from the band’s breakthrough album, The Trinity Session.

The main set ended with “Follower 2,” the third song from At the End of Paths Taken. The symphony colored the slow opening section with subtle flourishes as the Junkies did their somber thing. Then the drums sauntered in, building ever so slightly along with the orchestra until the wave of sound reached a triumphant crescendo, spilling out onto the crowd. The song was such a dramatic high point that the rest of the performance paled in comparison, and the audience was left to revel in what they just heard, but also to regret what else they could have heard.

The encore was unspectacular, as the Cowboy Junkies played “Blue Moon Revisited” alone and an anti-climactic version of their hit cover “Sweet Jane” with the Pops (although I did see several closet Velvet Underground fans within the orchestra bobbing their heads). Strict musician’s union rules prevented the band from playing further songs.

Overall the show was a mixed bag, with moments of fulfillment but ultimately too much unrealized potential. As a Cowboy Junkies show it was very good, but as a Cowboy Junkies collaboration with the Pops it did not quite do enough. That may be the nature of Edgefest, as bands are only granted one day of rehearsal with the Pops, which could just not be enough time to co-coordinate such a massive undertaking. But nonetheless it was an interesting night, and in fairness, it may have been too much to ask for the musical performance to equal the musical talent that was on stage.

The Boston Pops opened the show with their own set, playing selections from West Side Story as well as two pieces, “Wish You Were Here” and “Travelacoustica.” It was the world premiere of Nico Muhly’s “Wish You Were Here,” a tense, complex, sometimes maddening piece which twisted through genres and displayed the range of the orchestra. “Travelacoustica” saw its east coast premiere, and the song was a much more traditional display of the power of the Pops.

Hem is the next guest to the Boston Pops\’ EdgeFest; the band will be playing on June 26 and 27. Internationally acclaimed DJ Paul Oakenfold will also perform.

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