Saturday, June 25, 2011

Handled With Care: Blackie and the Rodeo Kings' Kings and Queens

Blackie & the Rodeo Kings is the collective name for Canadian musicians Tom Wilson, Stephen Fearing and Colin Linden. The group came together a few years ago with a mutual interest in the music of Willie P. Bennett. Bennett was a singer-songwriter who composed some great songs; a combination of blues and rural sounding ballads that made him popular in folk music circles in Canada in the late 1960s. The band’s name comes from the title of Bennett's 1979 album. Bennett's popularity soared after Blackie & the Rodeo Kings released an album of his compositions called, High or Hurtin: the Songs of Willie P. Bennett, in 1996. Suddenly everybody in contemporary folk music was hearing Willie P. Bennett songs. This initial union thus provided the founding members with a band, a name and a reason to continue working together. Six albums now make up the discography of Blackie & the Rodeo Kings.

Their seventh album, Kings and Queens (Dramatico, 2011) is their newest and finest record to date. It features collaborations with some of the band's most favourite female singers. The result is 14 songs with 14 "Queens" as guests. On one level, since this recording is being done in the 21st Century, the collaborators don't have to be in one location to work. A vocalist can lay down a track without leaving their home. For this album, with so many guest singers, the technology has served the music quite well. Rather than feel like a haphazard collection of tracks from different locations, the record comes across as a carefully prepared work. The tunes are sublime, mystical, personal and buoyant. Each performance is articulated and nuanced with nothing being left to chance. I understand it took them months to complete the sessions due to all the conflicting schedules, but it was definitely worth the time. On Kings and Queens, the artists are treated with respect and handled with care.

Blackie & The Rodeo Kings
Kings and Queens features a healthy mix of seasoned veterans (Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, Roseanne Cash) and relative newcomers (Serena Ryder, Amy Helm, daughter of Levon Helm). All egos have been checked at the door because the singers serve the songs with full recognition that it’s not a competition. I can think of a number of collaborations that are assembled purely for commercial reasons with little concern for the work. In this case, a higher standard of excellence serves the music without commercial considerations coming first. The effort of producer Colin Linden has certainly paid off. King and Queens is a fine collection of musical vignettes, each with their own distinct qualities because of what the women and their talent add to the texture of the songs. What the band has tapped into is each singer's unique sound. As a result, no two performances are alike.

But the union goes beyond the music. Wilson, Linden and Fears were from single-parent homes so consequently all three were very close to their mothers. That special relationship steered the group into doing an album like this. In fact, during the recording, that took place part-time over the past year, Wilson and Linden both lost their mothers. So what we have here is as much a remembrance to their loss as it is a tribute to women in general. Kings and Queens kicks off with Lucinda Williams on Tom Wilson's "If I Can't Have You." It's a straight-ahead country rocker full of soul. “Another Free Woman,” which features Sara Watkins, follows the opening track. Watkins is a bluegrass fiddler from California who offers a nice contrast to Williams’s edge. The album continues with superb performances by Rosanne Cash and Amy Helm. But one of the highlights for me is the duet featuring Stephen Fearing and Cassandra Wilson on “Golden Sorrows.” It is a stunning example of conveying private moments in a public arena; a sublime recording from start to finish.

Singer/songwriter Patti Scialfa took more than a passing interest in the project by submitting 3 different versions of "Shelter Me Lord" written by Julie and Buddy Miller. The final choice pays off as one of the strongest cuts on the record. Most people know Scialfa as the wife of Bruce Springsteen, but she's also released several solo albums in her career (Rumble Doll, Play it as it Lays). All of the songs on Kings and Queens are solid examples of what good collaborations ought to be: simple, free of ego and honest. The record has the perfect blend of talent where unique voices take on contemporary music and the band takes proper care to provide the best setting for it – even as a technological feat. Our ears are treated to 14 songs with 14 contrasting vocalists that is both respectful and entertaining; quite the combination.

Kings and Queens is a true labour of love.

John Corcelli is a musician, writer and broadcaster.

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