The Newport Folk Festival was never strictly limited to folk music, but the 2008 festival expanded the musical diversity more than ever before. Perhaps taking a cue from the massive success of younger festivals like Bonnaroo, the 2008 roster included bigger ticket artists like The Black Crowes, Jimmy Buffett, The Levon Helm Band, Trey Anastasio and The Cowboy Junkies (presented here), right along with the folk, bluegrass and blues troubadours that once topped the bill. Despite some weather issues, this approach turned out to be a resounding success and all of the headlining acts turned in memorable performances that often conveyed the influence of the traditional styles that originally launched the festival.
One of the higher profile groups to perform that year was Toronto's Cowboy Junkies, whose lunchtime appearance on Saturday would be their final stop before returning home from nearly 18 months on the road. Self-taught musicians, whose original music is grounded in traditional blues, country and folk forms, The Cowboy Junkies have enjoyed incredible longevity, while remaining true to their original artistic vision and with their integrity intact. 2008 marked the 20th anniversary of the group's breakthrough second album, "The Trinity Sessions," which initially established their musical signature. With its organic minimalist approach and quiet intensity, this album was a breath of fresh air upon its release and remains their most popular album. By the time of this Newport Folk Festival, The Cowboy Junkies had added nine impressive studio albums to their catalogue. The latest, 2007's "At The Ends Of Path Taken," found primary songwriter Michael Timmins examining the conflicts of relationships, including family relationships, with an unflinching realism and poetic grace. The emotional resonance that singer Margo Timmins brings to her brother's lyrics was never more penetrating than on this collection of songs and the increasingly complex instrumental textures of the band resulted in one of the Junkies' most compelling albums yet.
Performing before such a large outdoor audience and during daylight hours might not seem conducive to the often dark and intimate nature of the band's music, but The Cowboy Junkies deliver a most engaging set that places an emphasis on the more dynamic material from the "Miles From Our Home" album, released a decade prior, the "The Trinity Sessions," issued two decades prior, and the new album, "At The End Of Paths Taken." Although the quiet moody dynamic that initially made the Cowboy Junkies stand out is still present, much of this material is neither slow or quiet and several songs feature improvisational flights that are nothing short of intoxicating.
The Cowboy Junkies open with the title song from the "Miles From Our Home" album, a relatively up-tempo celebration of relentless travel that finds Margo's silky vocals immediately engaging and which features plenty of multi-instrumentalist Jeff Bird's superb harmonica work. With Alan Anton's bass establishing the groove while Margo admires the boats in the harbor, they continue with "I Don't Get Get It." A writing collaboration by Mike and Margo that harkens back to the "Trinity Sessions," this gritty number searches for sense in the cycle of life and death, a theme that will surface in the next several songs as well.
A choice pair of songs from the newest album, "At The End Of Paths Taken" is performed next, beginning with "Follower 2." This is a perfect example of the group slowly building up the dynamics and features one of Margo's most expressive vocals. The rhythm section of Alan Anton and Peter Timmins establish a superb groove on the next number, "My Little Basquait" written by Anton and Mike Timmins. This propulsion provides the base for some fine instrumental embellishments from Mike Timmins and Jeff Bird and another lovely vocal from Margo, with a lyric that ruminates on children and their futures. Returning to "Miles From Our Home" material, the band slows things down and investigates the temporary nature of all things with "Those Final Feet." With Margo conveying a painfully intimate lyric written about the death of the Timmins' grandfather and Jeff Bird's beautifully constructed mandolin solo replacing the gorgeous piano solo of the studio arrangement, this concludes the most introspective sequence of the set.
The band starts stretching out a bit on the ominous "Just Want To See," a reminder of human frailties written for their 1996 album, "Lay It Down," but the centerpiece of this performance is next with an atmospheric flight into the traditional "Working On A Building." Originally recorded during the "Trinity Sessions," (but initially left off the album - it was later added to CD issues), this is a prime example of the intoxicating improvisational flights that this band is capable of. With Alan Anton's steady bass and Peter Timmins superb brushwork holding down a steady pulse, Jeff Bird and Mike Timmins take flight into a smoldering psychedelic jam. Jeff Bird's electric mandolin work is nothing short of extraordinary here, and his use of distortion and effects will leave many listeners convinced two electric guitars are in flight here.. Mike Timmins, although never flashy, also proves himself one extremely engaging guitarist. His use of distortion and wah-wah and his instincts at spontaneously sculpting sound send this number into the stratosphere.
As they approach the finish line, the band delivers an excellent reading of "Good Friday," another "Miles From Our Home" track that has Margo's haunting voice floating over the arrangement. Following this, Margo thanks the audience, the Newport Festival staff and introduces the band members individually, before they take their final flight of this performance and of this tour. They close with a forceful and fiery read on "Murder Tonight, In The Trailer Park," which despite its dark brooding nature, provides one last opportunity for the band to take full flight, ending the performance with a gripping intensity that cannot be denied.