Cowboy Junkies: Trinity Revisited

By: Bill Clifford

Typically, as seminal and highly influential albums reach milestones, they’re given the reissue treatment. The music, including previously unreleased demos and b-sides, is compiled and digitally remastered, along with other re-packaging enhancements. Luckily and thankfully the Cowboy Junkies have never been typical, and The Trinity Session , the 1998 recording which introduced the nascent band to the world beyond its native Toronto and became a cult hit with fans, critics and future musicians alike, is certainly deserving of much more than a typical reissue.

Instead, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of The Trinity Session, the quartet, including Timmins siblings Margo (vocals), Peter (bass), Michael (guitar) and Alan Anton (drums) returned to the now infamous Church of the Holy Trinity to re-record the monumental album in November of 2006, resulting in Trinity Revisted (Rounder/Latent). The band invited longtime “fifth Junkie,” multi-instrumentalist Jeff Bird, who was present when the original was recorded in 1987, as well as Natalie Merchant , Vic Chesnutt and Ryan Adams , for whom the album has had influential and professional resonance, to join them in 2006. The event was further documented as a DVD that accompanies the audio recording.

Like the original, there were few rehearsals as the band and guests arrived a day prior and recorded the songs live in one take, with all musicians sitting in the round. However, unlike the original, which was recorded around one microphone, this time the band had the financial wherewithal to afford more microphones as well as the film crew, and the technical improvements are certainly welcome. As far as the songs themselves, the interpretations don’t stray far from the original intent, but the performances never sound rote or redundant. Margo’s sullen, sultry vocals balance well with brother Michael’s blues drenched, narcotic guitar. Now, however, she sings and performs with the strength and confidence of a veteran on tracks such as acappella opener “Mining For Gold,” where she is a far cry from the shy teen that often sang with her back to the audience in ’87.

Where Trinity Revisited sets itself apart from the original is in the re-interpretations of the songs via the guest musicians, whom are fully integrated into the performance as a whole. “Misguided Angel” is given added charm as Merchant and Margo trade verses with Adams adding backing harmonies. Chesnutts’ somewhat gargled yet soulful vocal tremble here makes “Blue Moon Revisited (Song for Elvis)” a somber duet with Margo, sounding as though this was the way the song should have been recorded in the first place.

Bird contributes solemn, weepy electric mandolin to the Hank Williams tune “I’m So Lonesome, I Could Cry.” Adams’ guitar squares off Michael’s guitar as well as Byrd’s harmonica on the traditional blues, “Working On A Building.” Lou Reed’s “Sweet Jane,” the lo-fi, somnambulant single that received considerable airplay and garnered the Junkies worldwide acclaim, here benefits from the years, performed with dissonance, smoky guitar and considerable performance muscle. Adams takes a vocal turn here that’s just out of his range, suggesting this one may have been better left to Margo.

Throughout, each guest is given ample opportunity to leave his or her stamp on this recording. Merchant (vocals and piano) and Bird (violin) take Michael and Margo’s murder ballad, “To Love Is To Bury,” to a more ominous and sullen place, if that’s possible. Adams, who like the Junkies has been writing and performing his own songs since he was a teen, gives an honest, raw rendition of the classic road song “200 More Miles.” Chesnutt eerily aches and moans his way through “Postcard Blues” as though he was born to sing it, with Adams on drums and hurtful, harmony guitar from Michael Timmins.

The DVD provides a documentary of the recording, which includes introspective interviews with a reverend from the Church, producer Peter Moore who recorded the original The Trinity Session, as well as the DVD producers. Band members provide insightful, humorous commentary on the original recording as well as this re-working. But, where the DVD really makes an impact is in the presentation of the Church itself. The hallowed ambiance is very much intact. The moody, dusky blue and red lighting spotlights the musicians juxtaposed by the lovely stained glass and helmed arches. For fans outside of Toronto, the DVD adds a stunning cinematic view into hallowed ground.

The Trinity Session left a pronounced and resounding impression on many (this critic included) when released in ’87. Twenty years later, Trinity Revisited may just turn on a new generation of fans to the eloquent beauty of the music of the Cowboy Junkies and the ethereal charm of the Church of the Holy Trinity.

JamBase | Canada
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