Friday, January 17, 2014

Goin' South: Blackie & the Rodeo Kings' SOUTH

Goin’ South is something we northerners think about all the time. Sure, we head up north to the cottage in the summertime. We like to sit on the dock, dangle our feet in the cool water, maybe drop a line in or do a little canoeing but when the snow comes it’s all about south. Musicians in Canada have been thinking about the south forever. South is where you need to make it. South is where all the influences come from. Even if we’re influenced by Neil Young or Joni Mitchell we had to watch them travel to California before we paid them much attention. The Band had four Canadians and it was the lone southerner who had the biggest impact on their sound. I mention The Band because they are the group people point to as the precursor to Blackie & the Rodeo Kings whose new CD came out this week. It’s called SOUTH and you can hear echoes of The Band in the title track. The ragged but spot on harmonies, the organ, the solid bass and lots of guitar. However don’t think that B&RK is just a copy of Levon’s old group!

B&RK is made up of three brilliant singer/songwriters with individual and successful careers. Stephen Fearing is a monster acoustic guitar player and folksinger. His solo records are spoken of in the same breath with those of Richard Thompson. He also has a couple albums as half a duet with Andy White. On stage with B&RK he’s the one who stands still and sings the ballads. He lives in Nova Scotia. Tom Wilson is a wild man of rock’n’roll. He plays a beat-up Gibson with autographs on it from Johnny Cash and John Fogerty. He carries it on-stage and takes it with him when he leaves. It doesn’t sit in a stand. His hair hangs long, covering a heavily bearded face as he provides the deep Cash-like blues voice. He’s recorded solo, and in Junkhouse, the Florida Razors, and as Lee Harvey Osmond and makes his home in Hamilton. Then there’s Colin Linden born in Toronto and currently living in Nashville. He’s the guy who went south. He works all the time (as they all do) as a music consultant on the TV show Nashville and in bands backing Bruce Cockburn, Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris and others. He is a producer and one of the finest guitar players in the world. On stage he is exuberant, bouncing up and down as he rips off stunning guitar parts.
Those are the basic ingredients which came together for a one time project in 1996 to pay tribute to a Canadian songwriting legend Willie P. Bennett. Bennett was a musician’s musician admired by all who played harmonica and mandolin with Fred Eaglesmith, the Dixie Flyers and many others. Linden, Fearing and Wilson recorded a collection of Bennett’s songs and released it as High or Hurtin’: The Songs of Willie P. Bennett. They enjoyed playing together and in 1999 issued a double CD Kings of Love filled with original tunes and a couple of covers. This became the standard, original songs by one or two of the band members with a well-chosen cover written by Bennett or another Canadian folkie (Cockburn or Murray McLauchlan for instance). Over the years Blackie & the Rodeo Kings have issued seven albums. SOUTH is number eight following 2011’s classic Kings& Queens which featured duets with a number of female singers including Patti Scialfa, Rosanne Cash and Lucinda Williams.

Blackie & the Rodeo Kings

SOUTH is an acoustic album. They forsake electric guitars for an unplugged sound, but it still rocks like crazy, and the harmonies come to the forefront. Drummer Gary Craig and bass player John Dymont provide solid support but SOUTH is all about the songs and the singers. Oh, and that Colin Linden guitar playing. The songwriting is strong, with memorable melodies, and lots of space for some bottleneck picking.
The album begins with “North” Tom Wilson’s contrary paean to Canada, “I’m goin’ north tonight where it’s lonely…” Wilson shops at the grocery store just down the road, so maybe it’s not as lonely as it’s just a place where folks leave you alone. This is followed by Linden’s title track, “South” which is a slow rhythmic tune not unlike Springsteen’s “The River.” “Baby point this engine south…we spent our youth tryin’ to make a life but from here I know we never will…” I’m not sure who is playing the organ on this tune, I reviewed it from a Soundcloud file, but it’s quite Garth Hudsonesque and provides a frame to hang a Dobro solo on.

Lead vocals turn back to Tom Wilson for “Gotta Stay Young” but Fearing makes himself known with high backing vocals. Next up it’s Stephen’s turn for the lead on “I’d Have To Be A Stone” a melancholy weeper. “I’m Still Loving You” is repeated from Kings & Queens in a new interpretation without Amy Helm’s vocals, and it becomes a new song. The Wille P. song they close the album with is a new rendition of “Driftin’ Snow” that closed High or Hurtin’.

This is music as it is meant to be heard, raw, authentic, and real. You can sense that these men have been through it all. The songs each speak to the human condition lyrically, and the impact geography, weather, travel and time have on us. Blackie & the Rodeo Kings simply are as exciting to listen to (even when they’re laid back) as they are when you see them in concert. They are the real thing; top to bottom, east to west, and north to SOUTH.

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, Ontario with his wife.

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