Margo Timmins of the Cowboy Junkies at Barbican January 1, 2013
|Origin||Toronto, Ontario, Canada|
|Genres||Americana, alternative country, country rock, folk rock, blues rock|
|Labels||RCA, Geffen, Latent, Zoë|
The Cowboy Junkies are an alternative country and folk rock band formed in Toronto, Ontario, Canada in 1985. In addition to Alan Anton, four of its five original members were siblings: Michael Timmins (guitar), Peter Timmins (drums), and Margo Timmins (vocals). John Timmins, a guitar player, left the band before it coalesced. Carolyn (Cali) Timmins, made her career as an actress in soap operas, TV dramas, and films. (There are six siblings in the Timmins family, three brothers and three sisters. The third sister is in the fashion industry.)
Alan Anton and Michael Timmins, lifelong friends who met in kindergarten, formed their first band in high school. In 1979, influenced by the wave of post-Sex Pistols punk bands, particularly Siouxsie & the Banshees, they recruited drummer Geoff Railton and singer Liza Dawson-Whisker, and formed Hunger Project. They relocated to Manhattan's Lower East Side where they played regularly at various clubs and "tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to make a living playing adaptations of the kind of fierce rock that was then coming out of England." In the spring of 1981, Hunger Project embarked on a 35-city tour of the United States. After that, Hunger Project moved to the United Kingdom, where they toured for three months and released a single (The Same Inside/Assembly).
When Hunger Project disbanded, Alan Anton and Michael Timmins remained in London and started an improvisational unit named Germinal. The members - Michael Timmins on guitar, Alan Anton on bass, a drummer, and saxophonist -played whatever they wished on their instruments at the same time. Germinal released two LPs (Germinal 1 and Din). The music newspaper New Musical Express said Germinal "ranks among the most innovative and aggressive sounds to emerge from the independent scene this year." Alan Anton and Michael Timmins had a somewhat different take, saying, "It was the ultimate release for us. But for the audience, it was quite a chore." Germinal broke up after three years, in the autumn of 1984, with core members Alan Anton heading to Berlin and Michael Timmins returning to New York City.
Upon their return to Toronto in 1985, Alan Anton and Michael Timmins rented a house, insulated the tiny garage, and, with younger brother Pete Timmins sitting in on drums, began exploring a new musical direction. Margo was drafted to join and recalls, "I was contemplating going on to graduate school, staying in school. That was safe. I never wanted to be a musician or be onstage." Nevertheless, Michael Timmins began to hear something in what they were doing with their initial jams, realizing that a female voice was what the band needed. Michael Timmins said, "I thought if you had this female voice on top of it, you could do anything you wanted."
However, the languid tempos and whispery tone that would characterize their early work was as much a product of necessity as it was of inspiration. Their tiny rehearsal space sat just a few yards behind their house, which was pressed closely with their neighbors. During their very first jam, the police descended on the troupe; a neighbor having complained about the noise.
"We realized we had to tone down," Michael Timmins said. "One thing fed into the other: Margo began to realize that her singing voice was more effective quiet. We began to realize, if we can get down underneath Margo, the sound will be more effective. Pete picked up brushes - he was just learning to play drums at that point. Everything sort of came down. We learned to play with less volume."
As they drove to their first gig, they realized they needed a name for the band. When they arrived, Margo Timmins had come up with the name Cowboy Junkies. The newly minted band performed at a small space in the back. In those days, the group would lay down a rhythmic groove while Margo improvised vocal melodies and sang snatches of old blues songs. Often, the entire performance would consist of a single, ever-shifting jam.
In the audience at that first show was Peter Moore, a recording enthusiast who had ambitions of becoming a producer, and would later go on to earn a Grammy. "I was mesmerized by Margo," Moore remembers. "The very first show, people weren't paying attention to them, because they were playing so softly and quietly. Margo had her back to the audience a lot of the time."
After Alan Anton and Michael Timmins' unsuccessful struggles to establish a self-sustaining band, they gradually earned long-lasting success with their third band, the Cowboy Junkies. In London, they had developed journeyman skills as musicians, and expanded their knowledge of music history--Michael Timmins worked in a record store for a year to make ends meet while with Germinal. Among those who were to influence Michael Timmins and Alan Anton were jazz musicians Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, along with the sound of early blues musicians Lightnin' Hopkins, John Lee Hooker, Bukka White, and Robert Johnson.
Armed with knowledge, skill, a vision, and eight month's worth of performances before audiences, the band sought a like-minded recording engineer and didn't find one who understood what they wanted to accomplish. Shortly afterward, the Cowboy Junkies met Peter Moore at a dinner party, and when they began talking about recording equipment and techniques, they found that Moore's interest in single-mic recording meshed with their desire to capture the intimate sound of their rehearsal garage. Moore had just purchased a high-end Calrec Ambisonic microphone at the wholesale price of $9000. The Cowboy Junkies and Moore came together at the rehearsal space on June 26, 1986 and turned the garage into a recording studio. Moore arranged the group around his Calrec, jury-rigged a control room in the kitchen, and started recording.
The Cowboy Junkies shopped their material around for a bit, but were unable to find a label to distribute their work, so they created their own indie label, Latent Recordings, to release Whites Off Earth Now!! in October 1986. They sold 3,000 copies. The band then toured the US. Michael Timmins described the experience: "While touring Whites we had spent a lot of time in the Southern states, especially Virginia, Georgia and the Carolinas. For some reason the club owners down there took a liking to what we were doing so we spent a lot of time crossing the kudzu choked highways that ran through the heart of the old Confederacy. Those were the days when having to spend a night in a hotel room would mean the difference between eating the next day or paying for the gas to get us to the next town, so we spent a lot of our time sleeping on the floors of friendly promoters, fans, waitresses and bartenders."
The band's next project, The Trinity Session, became their breakthrough. As with their debut album, Peter Moore produced the album. They approached the project as a reaction against the MIDI-dominated musical styles of the '80s. Moore said, "I was angry that music had gotten into drum machines and MIDI. No humanity, no nothing. I'm listening to these recordings from the '50s with two or three mics and I'm going, 'Man that's real music.'" He chose the Church of the Holy Trinity in Toronto for its natural reverb. To better persuade the officials of the historic church, Moore claimed "The Timmins Family Singers" were recording a Christmas special. The session began early on November 27, 1987. Songs with the fewest instruments were recorded first, and then the songs with gradually more complex arrangements. In this way Moore was able to solve acoustic problems one by one. To better balance Margo's vocals against the electric guitars and drums, she was recorded through a PA system left behind by a previous group. By making subtle changes in volume and placement relative to the microphone over six hours, Moore and the band finally reached the distinctive sound of the album.
Music critic for Rolling Stone magazine, Anthony DeCurtis, summed up the result of the group's efforts in a four-star review of the album: "The Trinity Session is in the great tradition of albums that establish a mood and sustain it so consistently that the entire record seems like one continuously unfolding song. The mood in this instance is hypnotic and introspective - an intense, melancholic longing that blends the elemental emotions of country music and the blues with the poetic world-weariness of the Velvet Underground." . . . "Having good songs, the skill to convey what they have to say and, most important, a vision, the Cowboy Junkies dispensed with high-tech trumpery and made their record simply and seriously. That attitude helped make the album as important as it is inspiring."
The band's third album was more challenging, requiring three attempts to get the sound the band desired. Yet despite the problems with the making of it, the band considers it a very exciting and tumultuous time in their career and state that The Caution Horses remains one of their favorite albums. The band rented a small recording studio in the docklands of Toronto with the intention of using the room like the garage their first album was recorded in, as opposed to a live church-like room. The session went badly because the group had just come off the road after a grueling tour and were tired, particularly Margo Timmins who had a terrible head cold. After a few hours they realized the session wasn't working out, and they left.
The second attempt was made on April 21 of 1987 when Peter Moore rented the Sharon Temple, an historic landmark located in the village of Sharon, Ontario. Michael Timmins recalls, "The arrangements that we had developed for this new set of songs were at times so full and lush, unlike the spareness of most of Trinity's songs, that we were immediately confronted with the problem of how to control this swirl of sound so that it didn't just turn to mush on tape. Another problem was that the Temple was a lot more acoustically lively than any of us had imagined. As a result when the music swelled it would often spill over into Margo's vocal mic and feedback." At the end of three days during which the temperature would plummet below freezing, Michael Timmins states, "When we packed up and left Sharon that day I don't think that any of us felt that we had captured anything special. It had been a difficult three days and I think that we were all just happy that on that third day we had at least made some decent recordings of the songs if not necessarily memorable ones."
Over the next several months the band were touring and playing songs on the Sharon tape. As the band listened, new ideas for them evolved. They also wrote additional songs. Although the band truly loved recordings, the songs continued to develop on stage, they believed the session no longer accurately represented where they were as a band.
At the end of the tour, they decided to go into Eastern Studios in downtown Toronto and reinvent how they recorded themselves.The Caution Horses sessions went quickly and smoothly, and were recorded over several days in December 1989. Michael Timmins believes: "The beauty of the recording and one of the reasons it remains one of our favourites is that it captures the essence of the band which magically fell together during the recording of The Trinity Session and which forged its own voice, under the glare of a very intense spotlight, in the clubs and concert halls of the world."
With their next album, Black Eyed Man, Michael Timmins wanted to explore music structure, specifically time shifts and tempo shifts; while Margo Timmins wanted to expand her singing style and her range.The band experimented with each track. Several musicians from previous albums showed up during the rehearsal sessions, along with about twenty five other Toronto players that were known to the band, or recruited because of their skills with instruments the band wanted to include in the album. Realizing he needed a theme to hold the album together what Michael Timmins decided upon was "love found, love lost and love betrayed - it was to be the journey of the faceless, nameless and haunted Black Eyed Man."
The band's fifth album, Pale Sun, Crescent Moon is a song cycle about male-female relationships. Margo Timmins describes the theme of the album as "there is love and there is all that conspires to steal love away." Michael Timmins says, "It is a very dense and complex work both lyrically and musically."
Music critic, Mike Boehm, summed the album up this way: "By the album's end, Margo Timmins, the singer known for her preternatural hush, can be heard declaring herself with assertive bite: It's a (expletive) ole world, but this ole girl, well she ain't giving in. While it hasn't exactly turned into a hard-rock band (the closely-drawn, highly literate, mood-conscious internal monologue remains the signature of the band's style), those aggressive opening and closing moments do signal a desire to avoid being typecast as that whispering band that found success by recording in an echoing church.
The Cowboy Junkie's sixth album, Lay It Down, was one in which the group wanted to make the music outside of Toronto and away from their daily grinds, so they searched for a place that was a comfortable drive away but which felt remote. Alan Anton recalls, "We found Rock Island, named not for music but for geology. It is actually one big rock with stuff growing on it and has one small house with a great stone fireplace. We went there for a week at a time and between chopping wood, cooking, boating, whittling, hiking and staring into the fire, worked up some songs that were as laid back and sparse as the setting. "To record these songs, we felt it would benefit the music to find a studio which would approximate the vibe of Rock Island in the sense of a relaxed but focused mood and its remoteness from the music industry mainland. We found it in Athens, Georgia, in a big-porched southern house . . . In June 1995 we arrived in Athens and moved into our rented suburban home. The studio itself was state-of-the-art yet homey and we settled in quickly."
The Cowboy Junkie's last album of the decade is an alternative country one named Miles from Our Home. Wanting to repeat the process of writing and creating used for Lay It Down, Michael Timmins found a house near a grystmill on a pond, a couple hours drive from Toronto, where he spent six months writing songs. During that time, Margo and Peter Timmins and Alan Anton would come down to work on songs. Then Michael wrote more, until the songs were worked out and ready to record.
On New Year's Day in 1997, just as Timmins was planning the album, the band heard that Townes Van Zandt had died. Van Zandt was a friend of the band, had toured with them in their bus in 1990, and was perhaps the biggest influence as a songwriter on Michael. By day's end, Timmins wrote the first draft of "Blue Guitar", "as a tribute to the man who had the bluest guitar that I had ever heard."
Throughout their career, Cowboy Junkies have approached each album to see where they can change or improve.Open, which was released on May 15, 2001, follows in that tradition. While they were on a tour to support their live album Waltz Across America, which lasted nine months and had many breaks in the schedule, they began working on new material. They added two to three new songs a month into their performances, allowing the songs to evolve on stage. During breaks, they would go to sound engineer Daryl Smith's studio, Chemical Sound, to live record material they had created. Being able to set up in a couple hours, record some tracks, and be done by the end of the day was a departure from their habit of trying to complete an album's worth of songs in a set recording period. On each visit, they would record two or three songs. They also took the opportunity to re-record songs. After the band had recorded fifteen tracks, they listened and decided they had the songs they needed, with two additional songs recorded at Peter Moore's home studio.
One Soul Now was recorded over the course of a year, from October 2002 to October 2003. Its central idea is that everyone is interconnected. When the band returned home after their Open Tour, they decided to turn their rehearsal area into a recording studio which they dubbed, The Clubhouse. This new arrangement changed the process of how they created their tracks. Previously, they would start in the rehearsal space, determine how the songs would work, then go to a studio. Now, the band recorded everything as they worked through the rehearsal process.
The Cowboy Junkies next project was Early 21st Century Blues, which was recorded February through March 2005. It was begun a few months after their previous tour. The theme for the album was war, violence, fear, greed, ignorance, or loss, and everybody had to bring two or three songs written by other people. This album was unique in that John Timmins recorded with his siblings, playing guitar.
At the End of Paths Taken was release April 9, 2007. "Michael Timmins has written a set of songs that reflect the complex, frustrating, edifying, and conflict-ridden web of relationships that constitute the family, from nuclear to extended to global. He is a parent, and a son with aging parents. He plays with his siblings in the Cowboy Junkies." Timmins blends his alternative country music sound with ferocious guitar work on "My Little Basquiat" and "Mountain?. At times Timmons sounds as if he has lost control of his guitar playing, "until you realize there's not a stray note to be found. . . . Timmons' guitar playing has grown more aggressive over the years." Throughout the album, he weaves threads of biting guitar.
For the twentieth anniversary of their breakthrough album, The Trinity Session, the Cowboy Junkies reinterpreted the album to highlight what twenty years of performing experience brought to the songs. In order to expand upon the goal of reinterpreting, the Cowboy Junkies invited three guest musicians whose work has affected the Cowboy Junkies, and whose work and lives were affected by the album. Guest musicians on the 2007 album include Natalie Merchant, Vic Chesnutt, and Ryan Adams. Each does lead vocal on one of the album's songs (Merchant on "To Love Is to Bury", Chesnutt on "Postcard Blues", and Adams on "200 More Miles"). They also and perform on other tracks. Jeff Bird, a session musician who has appeared on virtually every Cowboy Junkies album but has never been credited as an official band member, also appears. In order to create the same atmosphere, they kept rehearsal to a minimum, getting together for a few hours a day before the recording. The guest musicians worked with the band to re-imagine the songs, making suggestions, trying out fresh nuances.
The album contains a performance film, Trinity Revisited, and a documentary film, Trinity Session Revisited. Directors Pierre and François Lamoureux, produced and recorded the album and the films. Although the album was not recorded with a single microphone like the original album, the directors placed the musicians in a circle and used a surround microphone, augmented the recording with ten close-mics to record them.
The Nomad Series is a set of four albums that comprise all of the music the Cowboy Junkies have released during the decade, although they are planning the release of a new album in 2018.The Nomad Series is 'not' based on a particular theme regarding music, but are based on a set of paintings by their friend, artist Enrique Martinez Celaya. The group found the name appropriate, since they are a band that has been on the road for 30 years.
The first album in the series is Renmin Park, which is based on ideas the band's principle songwriter, Michael Timmins, got while living in China for three months with his wife and three children. Two of his children were adopted from China, and during their stay they visited the birth village of his adopted daughters. Most of their time was spent in Jingjiang, situated on the Yangtze River about two hours' drive from Shanghai. The music that inspired Timmins most during the visit was found at Renmin Park, where a variety musicians would gather throughout the day, bringing their erhus, pipas, shangxians, various percussion instruments; and a mix of singers performed. Timmins found most of the musicians outstanding, he thought the singers were good because they all performed with passion. About halfway through the visit, Timmins was introduced to Eric Chen, who was passionate about music, and became Timmins' friend. Chen brought Timmins a variety of CDs and videos that showcased the Chinese rock scene.
Michael asked his brother, Peter Timmins, to send him a high-end portable recorder, which he carried everywhere he went, and recorded music, conversations, exercise classes, badminton games, traffic, students chatter in classrooms, street hawkers, and more. He sent the recordings to Joby Baker in British Columbia with instructions to create loops of the sounds, and to use his imagination.
The core of the album is built around a fictional love story between two people who live in different worlds that always keep them apart. Renmin Park is also a thank-you letter to the people of the city that so kindly welcomed him and his family.
On December 25, 2009, at the age of 45, Cowboy Junkies friend, Vic Chesnutt, died from an overdose of muscle relaxants. Chesnutt was generally a friendly and cheerful man, but he sometimes suffered bouts of severe depression. Demons, released January 18, 2011, is the Cowboy Junkies tribute to him. The band had included him in their twentieth anniversary celebration of The Trinity Session when they made Trinity Revisited. Chesnutt sang the lead on the song, "Postcard Blues." He had also toured with the group several times, starting with the tour supporting Lay It Down. Michael Timmins stated, "One of the hopes of this album is that it inspires people to seek out the originals and keep his music alive. We had intended to do an album where he would write the songs, and we would be the band. Now we're trying to fulfill a bit of that desire." The Cowboy Junkies mined Chesnutt's work to showcase the personal demons he laid bare in his songs. They managed to turn an album born from grief into an assertion of life.
On October 14, 2011, music critic Jason Lent began his review of Sing in My Meadow with this observation, "When R.E.M. called it quits, the band talked about walking away having maintained their artistic integrity throughout a 30-year career. As Cowboy Junkies pass the quarter century mark, the Toronto band must rest well at night. The band's consistent work flies under the radar more times than not and the band sounds content with keeping it that way." He continues, "One of the band's live staples in recent years is "Hunted" from 1994's Pale Sun Crescent Moon. Revisiting the song here, the original sounds frail and timid in comparison. Margo belts out the lyrics with the dry bitterness of someone who has witnessed first-hand the arrows that fly between men and women. As the band shakes the rafters, Bird delivers a mandolin solo that redefines the possibilities of the instrument." He ends his review with: "Sing In My Meadow offers an exciting glimpse into the band's depth and power." This seems to be a fitting and fair assessment of two men, Alan Anton and Michael Timmins, who have spent nearly forty years of resolve, hard work, and unflinching artistic integrity -- and to the band they founded in 1985 (Anton and Timmins have worked together since 1979).
The Wilderness was released on March 27, 2012, and is the final entry of the Nomad Series, being the fourth one. This volume is the introspection of winter after Sing in My Meadow's joyful visitation of spring. The album is a return to the folk vibe the band played with in the late 80s and early 90s. Songwriter Michael Timmins states: "[I] started to think in terms of an album of songs reflecting on the lives of characters I'd written about early in the bands career and bringing those characters . . . into the future to see where their lives were at now." About his lyrics, Timmins says: "Some of those songs have little touch points where . . . you can see how they connect to earlier songs -- even character's names and stuff pops into them, and that's intentional." He goes on to say, "The style of the songs on the album resemble earlier Cowboy Junkies music more than the other albums in the Nomad series."
With the release of the four volume Nomad Series, The Cowboy Junkies turned their back on major labels, which gave them the independence to explore various themes and to experiment with their music.
The Cowboy Junkies latest album, All That Reckoning, will be released on July 13, 2018. In an interview about the upcoming album with Billboard, guitarist and songwriter Michael Timmins said, "There's a lot of pressures and a lot of crumbling of institutions, very little foundation to put one's feet on again, especially at an older age. You sort of expect things to be there and realize, 'My God, what I thought was a standard, whether it be an institution or a way of dealing with people in our society, is disappearing."
As they have done throughout their career, The Cowboy Junkies tour year round, with occasional breaks (they average about 75 concerts per year). Currently, they are booked through July 28, 2018.
Michael Timmins states that "By the Spring of 1990 we had been on the road for close to two years straight, trying to stay right-side-up in the whirlwind of attention that was created by the release of The Trinity Session and the subsequent release of The Caution Horses. We had accumulated, literally, trunks full of press clippings from around the world, but most importantly we had built up our confidence on stage. Margo was emerging as a true front-person and we were gelling as band.
"In May of that year we landed in the London for our first full fledge UK tour and were greeted with much adulation and interest. The tour was a tremendous success on all levels and thankfully the BBC was there to record one of the shows at The Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester."
The Cowboy Junkies have performed on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson,The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,The David Letterman Show,Saturday Night Live, at Canadian Songwriters Hall of Fame, when they were inducted in 2015, and many other venues. Among their most notable concerts are the June 25, 2002 documentary Open Road, a four-hour DVD/CD documentary of performances from 2001. The DVD contains their Quebec City Summer Festival concert. In June 2007, they performed alongside the Boston Pops at Boston Symphony Hall conducted by Keith Lockhart. On January 1, 2017, Cowboy Junkies were part of CBC's The Strombo Show's Hip 30. Canadian bands covered songs from Tragically Hip to commemorate the Hip's 30th anniversary.
Their officially published live performances include seven albums (see Live albums and Compilation albums below). Due to the band's lax attitude about audience recordings, their fans have recorded at least 345 of their concerts. Because the group performs at smaller venues, they perform at many of the most beautiful concert halls in the world.
Alan Anton at a 2008 concert in Guelph, Ontario
Officially, there are four band members, all siblings except Anton, who was a member of Michael Timmins's two previous bands.
Since their second album the band has performed and recorded with multi-instrumentalist Jeff Bird, whose current role includes acoustic and electric mandolins, harmonica, percussion, and samples.
|1986||Whites Off Earth Now!!|
|1988||The Trinity Session||28||30||26||2× Platinum||Platinum|
|1990||The Caution Horses||11||33||47||Platinum|
|1992||Black Eyed Man||8||21||76||Gold|
|1993||Pale Sun, Crescent Moon||25||114||Gold|
|1996||Lay It Down||20||55||Gold|
|1998||Miles from Our Home||98|
|2004||One Soul Now||127|
|2005||Early 21st Century Blues|
|2007||At the End of Paths Taken|
|Trinity Revisited (CD/DVD)||94|
|2010||Nomad Series, Vol.1 Renmin Park||169|
|2011||Nomad Series, Vol.2 Demons|
|2011||Nomad Series, Vol.3 Sing in My Meadow|
|2012||Nomad Series, Vol.4 The Wilderness|
|2018||All That Reckoning|
|1995||200 More Miles: Live Performances 1985-1994|
|2000||Waltz Across America|
|2003||In the Time Before Llamas|
|2006||Long Journey Home (CD/DVD)|
|2009||Acoustic Junk (limited release)|
|1996||Studio: Selected Studio Recordings 1986-1995|
|1999||Rarities, B-Sides and Slow, Sad Waltzes|
|2001||Best of the Cowboy Junkies|
|2002||The Radio One Sessions|
|Open Road (CD/DVD)|
|2003||Platinum & Gold Collection|
|2012||The Nomad Series (Box set)|
|2015||Notes Falling Slow (Box set)|
|2004||'neath Your Covers, part 1|
|Year||Title||Peak chart positions||Album|
|CAN||CAN AC||CAN Country||UK
|US Modern Rock||US Radio|
|1989||"Sweet Jane"||75||--||--||--||5||--||The Trinity Session|
|"Blue Moon Revisited"||--||--||--||87||--||--|
|1990||"Sun Comes Up, It's Tuesday Morning"||22||5||78||90||11||--||The Caution Horses|
|"'Cause Cheap Is How I Feel"||68||15||30||93||--||--|
|"Rock and Bird"||34||11||--||--||--||--|
|1992||"Southern Rain"||20||6||--||--||--||--||Black Eyed Man|
|"A Horse in the Country"||52||23||--||--||--||--|
|"Murder, Tonight, in the Trailer Park"||--||--||--||--||25||--|
|"If You Were the Woman and I Was the Man"||--||31||--||--||--||--|
|1993||"Hard to Explain"||22||19||--||--||--||--||Pale Sun, Crescent Moon|
|"Sweet Jane" (re-release)||--||--||--||--||9||52||Natural Born Killers|
|1996||"A Common Disaster"A||11||12||--||--||20||75||Lay It Down|
|1998||"Miles from Our Home"||64||28||--||--||--||--||Miles from Our Home|
|2001||"I'm So Open"||--||--||--||--||--||--||Open|
|2004||"Stars of Our Stars"||--||--||--||--||--||--||One Soul Now|
|"--" denotes releases that did not chart|
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