Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Unadorned & Unaccompanied: Stephen Fearing's No Dress Rehearsal

Colin Linden, Stephen Fearing, and Tom Wilson, AKA Blackie & the Rodeo Kings

A few months ago I attended the Hamilton Music Awards. Blackie & the Rodeo Kings were headlining. I've seen BARK a few times before, and they're always an entertaining night out, filled with great music and a few laughs. The laughs generally come from wondering how early Tom Wilson will start swearing. This night he was pretty much under control, prowling around the right hand side of the stage like a wolf, with his low-slung Gibson guitar. That’s the one with all the autographs on it Ralph Stanley, John Fogerty and Johnny Cash among them. It's interesting to note that of all the guitars on stage, this is the one that comes on and leaves with its owner. No stage stand for this baby. Colin Linden is on the left of the stage (stage right to you theatre people) wearing his ever-present fedora, and clearly enjoying himself. He bounces up and down as if on a pogo stick, contrasting Tom's horizontal movements across the stage. In the middle is Stephen Fearing, who basically stays put. The three Kings are backed by John Dymond on bass and this evening Tom Hambridge on drums. I have to put in a special word for Tom (award-winning producer of Buddy Guy), who did a tremendous job filling in for the usual drummer Gary Craig. From "Water or Gasoline" through "Stoned" and "49 Tons," with a brief look back to Willie's "White Line" and a generous sampling of the new (and critically acclaimed) Kings and Queens, they simply rocked the place. They’ll be featuring the Kings and Queens album later in March with a very special concert at Massey Hall (which I’ll tell you all about later). But right now I’d like to focus on the guy in the middle: the quiet one who ‘stays put.’

On the merch table, there were all the usual choices. Copies of A Man Called Wrycraft’s newest BARK poster, the kid’s book that Tom illustrated, some CDs both group and solo work. It was there that I saw a cover I’d never seen before: a CD titled No Dress Rehearsal by Stephen Fearing. I didn’t buy it, thinking I’d pick it up later. After the show, we skedaddled, no time to shop. So I went on Fearing’s website thinking I could buy it from there. Nope! I wrote him an e-mail asking about it and he replied, “Oh, sorry, it’s only available at shows.” Then he added, “I’m still in town writing songs with Tom, you want to get together for a coffee?” That didn’t work out, but a month or so later, the CD and a postcard arrived in the mail.

I still owe him a coffee, or something stronger, for this generosity… maybe at Massey Hall we can ‘RRRoll up the RRRim’ together.

But what of this album? What’s it sound like?

It is subtitled “Live and otherwise” which describes it quite well. Eight tracks were captured live at Hugh’s Room May 28th, 2010, and the remaining half dozen tunes were recorded by Scott Merritt at The Cottage in Guelph. Fearing talks about the reason for this album in the liner notes. “Over the years, I’ve realized that there is a sizeable group of you guys who prefer to hear me play my guitar and sing my songs unadorned, unaccompanied and without all the flourishes and instrumental folderol that I’m often drawn to in the studio. It’s natural that if you spend most of your time as a solo artist, you might want to experiment with other textures and sounds when given the opportunities that a multi-track studio offers.” And who could blame him for adding the folderol of Colin Linden and Tom Wilson, or Andy White? But, on this recording, you have Stephen Fearing and his guitar. That’s it.

He calls it “bare bones, hit and run… recordings”. You hear it from the start. “The Big East West” comes from the Hugh’s Room session. You can’t hear the audience though. They seem to be mesmerized by his facility on guitar, and his voice. At the end of the song they break into respectful applause. This one brings you in gently, to make you feel at home. Track 2, “Black Silk Gown” rocks heavier, and you can recall what Colin Linden did with it on That’s How I Walk. Here, though, it’s just Stephen’s driving acoustic guitar and his voice. “Born to Be a Traveler” appeared on BARK, with the Rodeo Kings. It maintains its power done as a solo tune. Fearing’s self-accompanied guitar solo (playing rhythm on the bottom and lead on the top) displays his virtuosity. It’s no overstatement that he is often mentioned in the same category as Richard Thompson.

“Young Spartans Exercising”
That’s pretty much how the album goes, acoustic versions of songs we’ve heard surrounded by a band, or with an accompanist, or “the string quartette (sic) and the backing vocals.” He calls these “The Spartan Versions." Here’s Edgar Degas’ painting “Young Spartans Exercising”… so I’m trying to put 2 and 2 together.

Never mind… suffice it to say, Fearing’s songs on this album are stripped down!

Fearing’s generosity extends beyond the limits of the CD. He also provides a website where you can follow links to a place called My Back Shed, which offers further unreleased songs. Wow.

Is this the greatest album ever recorded? Do I like it better than the dressed-up versions on Blackie & the Rodeo Kings albums or Fearing’s studio records? Nope. I miss all the trimmings. However it is an honest representation of the work of one fine songwriter, guitarist and singer. I join the crowd at Hugh’s Room in applauding. I hope you can find a copy next time Stephen comes to town. Or stop by Massey Hall on March 21st and check out the merch counter. I’ll see you there.

– David Kidney has reviewed for Green Man Review and Sleeping Hedgehog. He published the Rylander Quarterly (a Ry Cooder-based newsletter) for 8 years before turning it into a blog, at He works at McMaster University as Director of Learning Space Development and lives in Dundas with his wife.


  1. Thanks for the review David. Glad you enjoyed the record. Spartan - as in nothing superfluous, just the "muscle and bones and gristle and brains". That was the idea.

  2. Stephen...I got it...went for a cheap joke! That was me at the Pearl on Friday. Great show! Erin Costello was excellent as well.