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Published: 2002/07/23
by David Steinberg

Open Road – Cowboy Junkies

Latent Zoe 01143-1030-9

Lately, I've been making the case that Cowboy Junkies are a
jamband. To some degree, the Open Road CD/DVD collection is a test
of that
statement. With four hours of music and a lot of repetition in the
song selection, this release does ask the question
of whether they improvise enough to be considered a jamband. Would
three different versions of both "Lay It Down" and "Dragging Hooks" be
interesting or just kind of repetitive?

The reason for the repeats is that this isn't just a concert DVD. The
CD that comes with the package is a standard live album. Tracks are
taken from shows played during their Open Road tour. The DVD has
four sections. The first is a documentary of sorts. Over a
soundtrack of songs from the tour – different selections than from the
live album – still photos and brief bits of video play to try to give
the sense of what it is like to be on the tour. The second and third
sections are television specials — one with the full band, one with
just Margo and Michael Timmins. The fourth part is a radio interview
with Margo and Michael in which they also play a few songs – most of
which were also played in the other Margo and Michael track.

Cowboy Junkies also recently released a live CD called Waltz Across
America. I really like the first few songs, there's some stuff in the
middle that isn't as good, and then it closes strongly. This CD fits
the same pattern. "Murder Tonight in the Trailer Park" and "Lay it
Down" have both energy and an interesting darkness to them. The "Lay
It Down" jam is perhaps the highlight of the set, with some soaring
leads being played over feedback drenched guitar. If you're curious
as to why I've been raving about them lately, this would be a great
place to start. After this start, the CD settles down. Most of
their best songs, unfortunately, have been included in their other two
live discs. Apparently trying to avoid repeats, they had to raid the
lesser known part of their catalog. There are some gems here ("This
Street, That Man, This Life", "Witches"), but nothing that ranks with
the "Good Friday" or "Southern Rain" of Waltz Across Americ.

The second big jam of Open Road comes in towards the end. "Dragging
Hooks" clocks in at nearly twelve minutes. Again, they manage to
explore some very dark spaces, albeit tamer than that amazing "Lay it
Down". This isn't a happy, sunny day album by any means.

The documentary track starts out extremely intriguing. As their cover
of "Highway Kind" plays, photos and movies from their bus and their
planes play. I can't ever watch this track without getting a sense of
wanderlust. Music and imagery meld together extremely well here,
anchored with the practical minutia of tour ("4320 bottles of beer.
460 bottles of wine"). The only problem with this track is that the
occasional band video obviously is from another show; it doesn't sync
up well with the music. That's somewhat distracting. Of the four
selections on the DVD, this one is my favorite. Their personalities
shine through here, from a joke they played on an opening act, to the
weirdness of being a Canadian band touring the American south during
the terrorist attack and its aftermath, you get a sense here of who
they are. Of course, it doesn't hurt that, musically, this is an
extremely strong selection. In fact, the soundtrack to this might have
made a better live CD than the one they included. I'd love to find a
way of converting these tracks to mp3s so I could listen to them away
from the television.

Unfortunately, the other three parts of the DVD don't approach this
quality musically. The Quebec City Summer Festival seems constrained
(with the exception of a great moment in "Dragging Hooks" where Margo
croons over a keyboard solo), like they know that they're performing
for the television. Perhaps that's in part due to the fact that
there are no non-song segments shown. Part of the joy of a Cowboy
Junkies show is in Margo's stories. It would have been nice if some
of them could have been included. A whole show recorded from some
venue would have been far preferable to the three mini shows
included here, especially because the two acoustic sets are really
only interesting as a curiosity.

So, did Cowboy Junkies pass the jambands test? I'm not sure. Each
individual jam is interesting, but by the third "Dragging Hooks" I
started to wish that they would do something else with the jam. The
dark, melodic, scary jams are great, but I wonder if they could do
anything else. The "Lay It Down" on the CD starts to hint at a
potential second style. I'd love to see if they could pull it off.

Even though they don't pass that test, the package is easily worth the
$20, if only for the documentary and the CD. However, I don't know if
I'd suggest watching the DVD all at once. If you ration yourself to
watching only one part of it at a play, it should be more enjoyable.
I listened/watched all four hours of it at first in order to write
this review and it definitely started to wear thin. However, when I
put it aside for a couple weeks and listened to the CD a second time,
I was surprised at how good the jams were.

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