The Canadian band Cowboy Junkies
has been wandering — across China, through the songbook of the late Vic Chesnutt and into what they call the “acid-blues” mode of their live performances.
The result of their 18-month musical journey is a five-CD set called “The Nomad Series,” the 53 songs of which include some of the most animated, diverse and experimental work of their career. It also, in its quieter numbers, stays true to the hushed melancholic sound of their 1988 breakout album, “The Trinity Session.” This, from four musicians whose average age is a tad over 50.
The band appears at the Neptune on Saturday. Both “The Nomad Series” and the band’s backlist will be featured in the concert.
“We have been doing two sets with an intermission,” bassist Alan Anton said in a recent email exchange. “The first consists of songs from ‘The Nomad Series’ and the second are old favorites.”
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The biggest surprise in the 5-CD set may be “Renmin Park,” inspired by chief songwriter Michael Timmins’ stay with his family in China in 2008.
“My wife taught English at the school, my three young kids attended a few classes and I spent my days exploring,” Timmins explains in the liner notes. “We also did as much traveling as my wife’s schedule would allow. On one very intense trip we journeyed to the birth villages of each of my daughters (two of my three children were adopted from China).”
The title song of “Renmin Park,” sung by his sister Margo, the band’s longtime lead vocalist, is one of his most lovely and lilting tunes. But elsewhere, electronic loops of found sound, Chinese instrumental interludes (on the pipa and erhu), and some unexpected vocal turns by Timmins himself and guest artist Zuioxiao Zuzhou (who also contributes to the songwriting) make this unlike any Cowboy Junkies album you’ve heard.
The second CD, “Demons,” is a tribute album to Vic Chesnutt, the singer-songwriter who overdosed on muscle relaxants in 2009 and used a wheelchair. Chesnutt was a friend of the band — they toured together several times — and Michael Timmins has written a fond, funny remembrance to go with the CD. Margo Timmins’ spooky vocals are well-suited to Chesnutt’s downbeat material, especially on “Betty Lonely” and Chesnutt’s not-quite-ready-for-suicide classic, “Flirted with You All My Life.”
In “Sing in My Meadow,” the band gives a studio nod to their sometimes wilder and woollier concert sound. Its neo-psychedelic sonic world wouldn’t have been out of place at the Fillmore circa 1967. “The Wilderness” reverts to the band’s quieter mode, with two songs, “Angels in the Wilderness” and “Let Him In,” that are special standouts.
Then there’s “Extras”: 10 tunes that didn’t make it on to the other four CDs. The Junkies’ notion of “also-ran” numbers is flabbergasting, and “Extras” is just as fine as the other sets. “The Girl Behind the Man Behind the Gun,” to name just one tune, is as sinister and powerful as its title suggests.
Many of the songs in “The Nomad Series” touch on lives spinning out of control or going through some dark phase. Yet the whole project, in both quality and quantity, seems to indicate an incredibly efficient focusing of creative energies.
Could this band be the mostly highly functional quartet of depressives ever encountered?
As Anton puts it, “There are many interpretations of our offerings: ‘Darkness becomes light, etc.’ But if there’s one thing we learned from Vic, it’s that the dark can be comic in the right perspective, and vice versa.”
Hitting a startling, prolific high point nearly 30 years into their career, Cowboy Junkies are doing anything but resting on their laurels.
Michael Upchurch: email@example.com