The Highway Kind – 1,378 Miles With Cowboy Junkies

The approaching sun cuts a thin vertical line of orange into the grey San Francisco sky. The coldness coming off the water already has my toes digging into my sandals searching for any of the Hawaiian warmth I left behind. This is how a tour begins, standing alone in an airport parking garage awaiting the arrival of two more pilgrims and a Saturday morning. I’m cold.

With over 20,000 miles on my Junkies odometer, this is not the first time I’ve followed a tour. Eight shows in eight days is the most ambitious plan yet, although there is a seed of doubt about the sanity of the entire trip. I felt it rooting in my gut during the slow descent into California. Hours later, the opening notes of “Follower2” will rake through my gut and turn the soil. Where doubt once rooted, there is only the emotional release of each tightly wound song of love and loss. As soon as each song ends, a craving for the next release immediately floods the bloodstream. I’m addicted.
Day One – Napa Valley Opera House, Napa, CA

Friends arrive and the rental car is loaded with bags and i-Pods. Stephen is the group elder and preaches the gospel of Bob Dylan. Chris has shunned the digital age and scours our i-Pods for any Led Zeppelin tunes. On previous tours through California, they seamlessly appeared in my rental car on the way to shows. When the tour dates were announced, there were volleys of emails, excuses for not going, and then confirmations of flights and tickets. Always go to the show, trust in the music, and watch the details fall into place.

Eleven proper studio albums into a twenty-year career, Cowboy Junkies have a rich well to draw from with each set list. Opening night in Napa, CA takes advantage of this and passes over five of the most popular albums. Reaching back to the celebrated Trinity Session and mixing in material from last year’s At The End Of Paths Taken, the show celebrates a band exploring their craft with no agenda. The encore is pure Cowboy Junkies as bassist Alan Anton propels Robert Johnson’s “Me & the Devil” into haunted new dimensions. Band and listener are left drained.

Day Two – The Rio, Santa Cruz, CA

The three of us pack the trunk with a selection of local brews and arrive early to tailgate. The parking lot party at a Cowboy Junkies show is similar to a Jimmy Buffett concert except there are no leis, no margaritas, and there are usually less than five people. Other than that, party on! The tailgate location proves fortuitous and we find ourselves quietly listening to sound check from the back row of the theater. There is a rush from hearing a band in sound check and peeking into the process of building a live show. Afterwards, singer Margo Timmins chats a bit about the new songs with the three of us and then we head back out to our tailgate party.

The venue generously removed seats in front of the stage since our last visit to Santa Cruz. A handful of us sit on the open floor to listen to opening act Monahans, or “the band formerly known as Milton Mapes.” With a Junkies cover to their credit and hailing from Austin, TX, their sonic atmosphere and songwriting are too unique to fly below the radar for long. Singer Greg Vanderpool appears truly humbled to be touring with Cowboy Junkies and the honesty of each song captivates the small crowd. It’s been a perfect day already and Cowboy Junkies have not yet taken the stage.

Day Three – Yoshi’s Jazz Club, Oakland, CA
The somewhat revitalized waterfront district provides passing entertainment in the way of empty bars and the constant rumble of passing trains. Like most vacations, there is the day when the tight budget derails. Oakland is that day as we seem to run up huge bar tabs everywhere we go. We meet up with taper Steve, who records the band’s shows and then shares the recordings with the rest of us. We love Steve. We add a new member to the rambling circus in Phil from NYC who arrives straight from seeing Prince at Coachella. He recognizes us from the band’s website and our group swells to five.

The band plays an early and late show at the jazz club, which apparently takes a liberal approach to classifying jazz. The venue lacks personality but could not be more efficient. We’re given cards to write our names on and clip to chairs in the club. This holds our seats and we’re free to mingle in the bar and order sushi. The usher even takes our request for the second show and saves our table. This is way too easy. 

The second show is an embarrassment of riches for fans as the band reworks older songs to great effect and adds another devastating tune to their repertoire cheerfully titled “The Girl Behind The Man Behind The Gun.” The night wraps up with an eleven-minute workout of Bruce Springsteen’s “State Trooper.” A throbbing bass line keeps the distorted wailing of the guitar afloat as Margo repeats the line “please don’t stop me” in a pleading tone. There is fear in the delivery but only for what may happen to the state trooper who disturbs her journey.

Day Four – Off Day

Sun comes up, it’s Tuesday morning, or so the song goes. The three of us head into Napa Valley, ears still ringing from last night’s encore. There is wine to drink and bottles to buy for the band. We search for a bar to watch the Colorado Avalanche vs. Detroit Redwings playoff game. This proves far too difficult. When did hockey fall behind NASCAR, mixed martial arts, and jousting in the sports pecking order? I add “lack of hockey on US television” to my list of reasons for seeking asylum in Canada. And then the Avalanche lose. Damn.

Day Five – Heritage House, Little River, CA

We’re up early on Wednesday and make for the Pacific Coast Highway. The drive to Mendocino heads north most of the time but the road itself feels more like a roller coaster after the first hour. We’re off the grid at this point with no cell phone coverage and no idea of where we’re sleeping after the show. As we drive over another breathtaking vista, the resort hosting tonight’s show appears perched on a cliff. 

The evening’s show takes place in a small dining room at the historic resort. There is no stage and an antique chandelier provides the only light once the sun settles into the Pacific. The hotel arranges small shows in exchange for lodgings when the right bands are headed up the coast. It’s a great arrangement for all involved.

The waves crashing into the steep cliffs provide the backdrop as the small crowd of ninety or so squeeze into the room.     There are about twelve of us pilgrims scattered throughout, our wrinkled clothing and messy hair betraying us amidst an affluent crowd of Mendocino locals. Michael and Margo stroll in with multi-instrumentalist Jeff Bird and settle into a bare bones set drawing from all periods of their catalog. Royal Albert Hall this is not but the view and intimate, casual setting make this a night to remember.

Day Six – Van Duzer Theatre, Arcata, CA

We push into redwoods country the next morning, heads very foggy after a late night of drunkenly debating metaphors in the band’s songwriting. We’re headed for Arcata, which is north. So when I start seeing signs for San Francisco, which is south, we turn the map over, and right the journey. The town of Arcata sits far up the coast, miles beyond what I always assumed was Northern California. The town is worn and the buildings old but the progressive outlook of the citizenship make it a haven for the arts and the show sold out weeks ago.

The theater sits on a college campus but there are few, if any, students in attendance. The band pushes their amps to 11 and the casual listeners expecting a quiet, country-tinged night of music are fleeing for the doors by the third song. Like soldiers sneaking into an enemy town, we stealthily move row to row towards the stage between songs. By the encore of a stunning set, I’m bouncing around in the third row and look over to see Chris and the others have captured the entire first row. The lighting and sound dance together in tender embrace as the band brushes the dust off the wings of “Misguided Angel” for the encore.

Sometime after midnight, the kindness of a stranger graces our journey when the editor of the local, indie paper provides us couches and blankets. We awake to marvel at the artwork of her husband who captures the overlooked beauty in the alleys of the decaying towns that dot the area. Their children look at us curiously for a split second and then think nothing of the three strangers camping in their living room. There are books and artwork on every wall and not a television to be found. It is a good home.

Day Seven – Cascade Theatre, Redding, CA

The trip pushes inland as we summit the Cascade Mountains. The road follows Trinity River for a time and we ride silently, taking in each spectacular overlook. The town sits at the foot of the mountains and serves as a waypoint for those heading elsewhere. There is an unsavory edge to this outpost town and we do not venture far beyond the venue.

The historic theater hosting the show is ornate in its early century beauty. The room is huge and the Redding crowd is small. It would be easy for a band to throw together a quick set list and knock out this show without much thought. Cowboy Junkies are not that band. The set list is graced by a new Ryan Adams cover, “In My Time Of Need” which leaves both pilgrim and casual local roaring in appreciation.

Adams joined the band on last year’s Trinity Revisted, a CD/DVD package that captured the band returning to the church where they recorded their seminal breakthrough album. The influence of Cowboy Junkies on the Americana scene that evolved in the 90’s has gone largely unmentioned but one listen of Ryan’s version of “200 More Miles” makes the connection all too apparent. Adams has said he hopes to work with the band on future projects and we can only hope both parties find the time for that to happen.
Day Eight – Laxson Auditorium, Chico, CA

The tour reaches its end in Chico, CA, on another college campus. The Monahans conclude their stint as the opening act with an aching rendition of the Junkies’ “Now I Know” and the Junkies open the show with three more songs that have not been heard all week. The final set list tally over eight shows is fifty-one songs. Taking over fifty songs on a weeklong tour boggles the mind and is a credit to the band’s dedication to the fans that follow them.  

Like most final shows of a tour, the night is loose and the audience more than forgives the occasional missed lyric. As each song winds down, there is a second or two of silence before the clapping and cheering as we drink in every last note. Margo wishes everybody goodbye and the band sinks into the Townes Van Zandt dirge “Highway Kind.” Margo remains seated on her stool with head down as the band drones around her and the stage lights darken. If someone asked me to explain Cowboy Junkies, this final song would be all they’d need to see.

Those of us who have taken in multiple shows meet out front, take a group picture and say goodbye to the band and crew we’ve been bumping into all week. Chris, Stephen, and I point the car south for an all night drive to San Francisco and our morning flights home. The only colors in the night are the yellow lines that flash by as our rental car eclipses 1,300 miles.
There is a much-needed stop for coffee at a Denny’s in an unknown small town, somewhere in the middle of the black night. As we take our tables, we find ourselves surrounded by high school students, stretching prom night as late as possible. The girls are dressed in bright dresses; delicate pinks meeting canary yellows. Their hair bends upwards at impossible angles and shy dates await direction. The poetic innocence in their movements sits at a hard angle to the road I’ve traveled all week. I yearn for the years I’ve passed on these highways. I am grateful for the music that softens the blow. More than anything, I am tired.    

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