Album of the Week, October 18: BARK by Blackie and the Rodeo Kings

BlackieCryinWhat started as a one-off superstar tribute project became one of the finest roots bands in North America. Canadian folk/blues/roots musicians Stephen Fearing, Colin Linden, and Tom Wilson built strong reputations of their own — and had worked together to support each other’s projects — throughout the 80s and early 90s. They got together in 1996 to pay homage to a shared favorite, Willie P. Bennett. High or Hurtin’ featured solid covers of some of Bennett’s best songs; the trio credited the disc to Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, a name taken from Bennett’s 1978 album. They had so much fun together that they decided to make the Kings a regular project, working it in around their other recording, performing, and producing activities. In 1999, Kings of Love — a sprawling, delightful two-disc mess of music — featured more Bennett with other well-chosen covers and solid originals from all three artists. It also won the trio a Juno award for best group roots album. Five years later, the trio re-assembled and put together their finest collaboration, taking its name from the handy acronym created by the group’s initials.

Album BARK
Act Blackie and the Rodeo Kings
Label True North Release Date April 13, 2004
Producer Colin Linden
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
  1. Swinging From the Chains of Love
  2. If I Catch You Cryin’
  3. Water or Gasoline
  4. Stoned
  5. Lock All the Doors
  6. Had Enough of You Today
  7. Born to Be A Traveler
  8. Jackie Washington
  9. Heaven Knows Your Name
  10. Song On the Radio
  11. You’re So Easy to Love
  12. Willie’s Diamond Joe
  13. Tie Me At the Crossroads
  14. House of Sin

By this point, the Kings were a well-honed unit, making the most of Fearing’s amazing voice and folk storytelling, Linden’s blues inclinations and production skills, and Wilson’s stellar roots rock power. They kick things off with the driving Swinging From the Chains of Love, a brilliant bit of love-hurts-and-I-can’t-get-enough. It rocks hard and swings fast, welcoming the listener to the party.

If I Catch You Crying could have been a lovely Fearing solo ballad, given extra punch by his bandmates. It’s a great example of the way talented folks can inspire each other and one of the finest songs in any of the Kings’ catalogs. They trade off vocals in the scorching Water or Gasoline, a fresh look and a long-standing blues metaphor. Wilson comes to the fore in the ambling Stoned, another song that could have been trite but instead emerges as inspired. He captures the lackluster energy flawlessly as the other Kings provide a solid electric backdrop.

Lock All the Doors is one of Linden’s finest moments, an aching blues-country song about erasing an unfaithful lover. It’s a well-constructed conceit,  a sort of sad brother to Lucinda Williams’ angry Changed the Locks. Wilson follows with a song of somewhat vulgar independence, the charming Had Enough of You Today. Fearing’s lovely road song, Born to Be A Traveler, wraps up this trio of near-solo songs. The formula works so well, that they repeat the cycle. Linden provides Jackie Washington, a smart musician-riding-the-rails tune with a nice dash of Canadian pride thrown in. On Heaven Knows Your Name, Wilson provides just the right pensive vocal to support the bittersweet lyrics. Fearing’s Song on the Radio is a wonderful bit of shared nostalgia, with a delightfully wistful vocal. These triptychs underscore how much more the Rodeo Kings are than just the sum of three talented parts.

With You’re So Easy to Love, the energy eases back in and the tone grows brighter. It’s a nice transition, followed by a pair of smart covers. Willie P. Bennet provides Willie’s Diamond Joe, a reminder of the talented inspiration that brought the trio together. It’s followed by one of the albums strongest moments, an amazing cover of Bruce Cockburn’s Tie Me At the Crossroads. With surging energy and a tight three-part harmony lead vocal, the Kings pull off the rare trick of trumping a solid original. Things wrap up with the gospel-tinged House of Sin, another Linden original that captures the whole roots magic of the group in one wonderful track.

With BaRK, the Kings cemented their reputation as a real band, not just a solo-artists’ lark. While all three men continue to record on their own and in other projects, many of their finest moments in the past decade have emerged from the alchemy of the Rodeo Kings.

FURTHER LISTENING: Fearing, Linden, and Wilson all have impressive catalogs of their own. I’m partial to Fearing’s work, the best example of which is the stunning musical poetry of Industrial Lullaby. When it comes to the Rodeo Kings, every album (seven so far) has something to offer. Looking for a starting point? The 2008 compilation Swinging From the Chains of Love is a perfect snapshot of the best of the Rodeo Kings.

Ironically, of the group’s main albums I find the Bennett disc the least interesting; it’s solid, but lacks the spark that comes in with the multiple writers on other discs. Kings of Love suffers slightly from being stretched over two discs, but it’s an impressive set. Let’s Frolic and Let’s Frolic Again avoid that problem by splitting a marathon session into two releases — tight and polished vs. loose and charming respectively. On Kings and Queens the guys offer up 14 duets, each with a different roots/folk woman; it works surprisingly well and has some amazing moments. South is the most like BaRK, a nice mix of songs that really presents the Kings as a band.

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About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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