I got to hear a great Canadian indie music show this week. On Wednesday night fabled country band Blackie and the Rodeo Kings played The Living Room on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The Blackies, or BARK, have hung together for sixteen years, even while each member of the basic trio pursues side projects in music and related arts. By happenstance I had met rhythm guitarist and singer Tom Wilson in Toronto last June when we bailed each other out by sharing a taxi we each badly needed one afternoon during the North by Northeast Festival (NxNE). Tom, originally from Hamilton, Ontario, was rushing to hear his son, a member of alt-country group Harlan Pepper, play at a key showcase, so we were happy to ride together in the pinch. He is a hirsute figure, a totally good-natured bear of a man, and a really proud papa of another great musician. Tom’s band mates are Colin Linden from Nashville, a small thunderbolt of a musician and an amazing slide and lead guitarist. Steven Fearing, originally from Vancouver, has spent much time performing in Ireland and the UK; he’s an angular, lanky tenor who plays a maroon Gibson electric with a lot of tasty licks. Tom’s axe is a battered Gibson with many autographs scrawled across its body; I could make out Robbie Robertson’s signature. Tom’s a veritable rhythm machine, playing great big chunk-a-chunk chords on his acoustic. In their spangly, rhinestone-bedecked black coats, they sing like fallen angels.
Tom played a song called “Stoned” preceded by this story, in paraphrase. “One night in Hamilton there were these kids raising hell in the park. I could hear ’em from my apartment–wine bottles clanking amid the smell of weed and raised voices. I decided I was going to call the cops, when suddenly, ‘Oh, that’s my daughter’s voice.'”
There was a good crowd for 10:00 PM on a Wednesday night, including (I was told) novelist Madison Smartt Bell and musicians I recognized, Delbert McClinton, Amy Helm (Levon’s daughter), and Luke Doucet. We’d all come to hear these musicians’ musicians.
The fellas brought Amy Helm on stage to do a few songs from “Kings and Queens,” their recent album of male and female duets. Watching blonde Amy sing was the closest I’ve been to her papa since I heard The Band at Watkins Glen in July 1973, when they shared a great weekend bill with the Allman Brothers and the Grateful Dead. She sang great, and was a good sport, taking the female part and reading from a lyrics sheet on songs she’d never shared in before. Next guest up was a willowy Winnipeg lass named Sierra Noble, whom Colin introduced as a Metis fiddler/singer. She fiddled and sang like a First Nation dream.
What impressed me most about the Kings musically was how they were almost a funk band, like some kind of outlaw country version of George Clinton. Tom hit a groove with his rhythm guitar, the excellent bassist Johnny Dymond and drummer Tommy Hambridge, from Nashville by way of Buffalo, were right there too, and they just rode that groove with Colin Linden laying down slide and lead guitar licks and Steven Fearing hitting lead licks on his Gibson. And always the great vocals.
According to my CBC Radio 3 pal Ian Young, who is known on the communal R3 blog as THEICEMAN: “All three are amazing artists in their own right. Colin Linden lives in Nashville and is a highly sought after session musician. Tom is an accomplished painter, and author, amazing songwriter and larger than life character. Stephen is also an accomplished solo artist, songwriter. Lee Harvey Osmond is Tom’s side project with members of Cowboy Junkies and Skydiggers along with others. So glad you enjoyed the show. I can guarantee you will never be disappointed by one of their shows. I never have been.” Lee Harvey Osmond is stylized as LeE HARVeY OsMOND, by the way. Ian also pointed out that Tom Wilson currently has an art exhibit on in New York.
Later, when I got home I noticed that Luke Doucet had promptly posted on Facebook about the show, writing, “just saw Blackie & The Rodeo Kings at The Living Room in NYC. I know… I didn’t move to NYC to see Canadian bands but I gotta represent. they brought the thunder.” Indeed.
[For full view of the photos below, click on them and they’ll open up wider and taller.]