ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, JULY 31, 2003
By Steve Newton
There’s a handful of CDs that have pretty well guaranteed placement in my personal top 10 of 2003. By the Grace of God, the stunning riff-fest from Swedish hard rockers the Hellacopters, has already copped a spot; likewise Trouble No More, the bare-bones, mostly blues offering from John Mellencamp. Now I can add BARK, the new Blackie & the Rodeo Kings release, to the winners’ circle. The team of Colin Linden, Tom Wilson, and Stephen Fearing has delivered a masterful roots-rock offering with its third release. The only possible complaint about it is that it’s not two CDs, like Blackie’s previous release, 1999’s Juno Award–winning Kings of Love.
“We came really close to doing two,” Linden explains, calling from his mother-in-law’s house in Toronto, where the singer, songwriter, producer, guitarist, and Dobro specialist used to live before setting up shop in Nashville. “We just sort of thought that doin’ it twice in a row would be kinda…I don’t know…less interesting for people. But we had a lot more songs, and a lotta them were real good ones. One of the things that we like doing most in the band is being a cover band, so I’m kind of pushing for the idea that we make another album soon, and make it covers.”
Blackie & the Rodeo Kings’ 1996 debut, High or Hurtin’, consisted entirely of songs by Canadian singer-songwriter Willie P. Bennett, the trio’s mentor and ongoing inspiration. Kings of Love featured five Bennett tunes, and the new disc includes just one, “Willie’s Diamond Joe”, but his influence on the group hasn’t waned. “Willie is the heart and soul of everything we do as a band,” Linden stresses. “In some ways being in a band that plays Willie P. Bennett songs is the most satisfying aspect. That, and us being really great friends, are probably the two most important things.”
The only other cover on the 14-track BARK—which includes five tunes written or cowritten by Wilson and Fearing, and four by Linden—is Bruce Cockburn’s 1994 rocker, “Tie Me at the Crossroads”. “We really wanted the thrust of the new album to be originals,” Linden notes, “but I thought that would be a cool song for us to cover. Originally when we cut it I thought that I would sing it—’cause I love singing it so much—but there were a couple of really strong influences on this album. One of them was Rockpile—with Dave Edmunds and Nick Lowe—and the other one was the Clash. Stephen Fearing grew up in Ireland in the ’70s, so we really thought it was more appropriate to have him sing lead, and bring a little bit of the spirit of Dublin in the ’70s to it.”
If Blackie fans are lucky, the band might pull out that rollicking Cockburn gem when it opens for 54•40 at the Plaza of Nations on Sunday (August 3). After that it’ll be back to Tennessee for Linden, whose recent work includes producing tracks for country sensation Lucinda Williams. The former Toronto resident says that living and working in Music City suits him perfectly.
“Nashville’s a much, much smaller city—it’s smaller than Ottawa—but it’s big enough that there’s cool stuff going on. It’s really easy to navigate, the people are extremely friendly, and it’s got the greatest roots-music scene on the planet. It’s an unbelievably vibrant music scene, and that’s not just the mainstream country world—it’s what goes on in the periphery. I mean, it’s the city where John Hiatt and Steve Earle and John Prine live, and all kinds of other really great artists. Unbelievable musicians, you know, from Adrian Belew to Steve Winwood. It’s just a fantastic place to live.
“I mean, you walk into a café and you run into someone who says, ‘Hey, I’m cutting a song this afternoon, I’m thinkin’ of havin’ slide guitar. Do you wanna come by and play?’ And it does happen like that, because every single day people are making hundreds of records, people are writing hundreds of songs. And the talent pool is unbelievable. I mean, I’ve played on a few records this year where I was by far the least experienced guy in the band. You know, the quality of the musicianship is so high that it’s very good for me, ’cause it kicks your ass a little bit.”