Colin Linden. Tom Wilson. Stephen Fearing. Together these three solo artists become Blackie & the Rodeo Kings. Separately or together, they make some of the most exciting music coming out of the Great White North these days. Linden is recovering from a tour with Emmylou Harris. Wilson is performing with a new band of Canajan pros called Lee Harvey Osmond. And Fearing is gearing up for a solo tour. Add the late and great Richard Bell on keyboards, John Dymont on bass and Gary Craig on drums and they do pretty much exactly what it says on the poster that served as the model for the cover of this new best-of collection. It says, “God and the devil and Willie P. Bennett got together and created the BARK boys. Stephen, Colin and Tom and released their musical fury upon the world like the three horsemen of the apocalypse. They rode across the land leaving empty cans of musical whupass behind them.”
Yup! I’ve seen ’em do it! Three horsemen, or six, they rocked the joints whether large or small.
In the beginning they weren’t a band at all, just three guys with guitars and a mutual respect for the songs of Willie P. Bennett. Their first album, High or Hurtin’ was just that, a collection of Willie’s songs. Released in 1996, it’s no longer available, to the label’s eternal shame. Only one song from HorH made it to this collection and while “White Line” might be many people’s favourite Willie tune, the rest of the album is well worth a listen. The fellas enjoyed playing together so much, and got such great reviews, that three years later they rejoined for the double disc Kings of Love.
Kings of Love featured some songs by Willie and some by other writers, as well as a few originals from BARK themselves. The new collection offers “49 Tons” (by Fred Eaglesmith), Tom Wilson’s “Lean on Your Peers,” “Vale of Tears” (by Janice Powers), Colin Linden’s “Remedy” and the instrumental “Andrew’s Waltz.” “Remedy” was done by The Band on their Jericho album. BARK’s version echoes it in the ragged harmonies and funky sound, but shows that BARK are musicians of the same calibre as Levon, Garth, Rick and the boys.
On their third album Blackie and the Rodeo Kings really took off. For my money BARK was one of the best albums of the year in 2003. Only four of the songs from songs from BARK made it here; besides “Swinging From the Chains of Love” there’s “Stoned,” “Water or Gasoline,” and the gorgeous Stephen Fearing track “If I Catch You Crying.” This has to be one of the most beautiful songs ever, perfectly described by its first lyric, “Masterpiece!”
The great thing about BARK is that each member of the trio is equal, just as important to the whole as the other. Wilson may be the natural front man and entertainer, with the big voice and quick wit; Linden is the guitar wizard, as masterful a slide player as Ry Cooder, and possessing an amazing ability to choose the right sound for every song; and Fearing is the poet — thoughtful, maybe a bit introspective, who has been jamming out on an electric guitar lately. And the backup guys are great too. The rhythm section of Dyment and Craig are excellent but Richard Bell (who passed away in June ’07) was the equal of the Band’s Garth Hudson. A magician with a keyboard. Listen to him on the unreleased track, “Caves of Jericho” (another tune done by The Band). Awesome.
That leaves one song each from the two newest BARK albums, Let’s Folic and Let’s Frolic Again, and the obscure cover version of “Folsom Prison Blues” that they did for a Johnny Cash tribute disc. They definitely put the blues back behind those bars.
This is a fine collection, and one that went immediately onto my iPod … but I also have all the other albums too, and I wouldn’t part with them. As an introduction to a remarkable band, Swinging From the Chains of Love can’t be faulted. I couldn’t live without the stuff that didn’t make the cut though. For my money, the best of Blackie and the Rodeo Kings is whatever they’re doing right now.
(True North, 2008)