The new Blackie and the Rodeo Kings album Kings and Queens may be the most ambitious project by a Canadian roots band since The Band invited a bunch of friends to join them on stage for the filming of The Last Waltz.
That’s a bold statement, perhaps, but this is a bold record for a band that began as a side project for three musical buddies paying tribute to the songs of Willie P. Bennett.
Nine albums later, Tom Wilson, Colin Linden and Stephen Fearing have continued to grow in their respective careers, maintaining Blackie and the Rodeo Kings’ slightly ironic imprimatur of “Canadian folk supergroup.”
Since their departure from Willie P.’s material, B&RK have earned a reputation for tightly-written, righteous, rocking productions that showcase their collective talent for playing, producing and performing. They were the go-to group to host a CBC tribute to The Band, and are perpetual folk festival favourites.
What’s eluded B&RK is what that other band with “Rodeo” in their name appears to have scooped: widespread acknowledgment as the rightful heirs of The Band.
Maybe that’s not what the guys had in mind when they invited fourteen different female singers to join them for Kings and Queens, but it’s hard not to see this album as an attempt to take the jackpot.
Emmylou Harris, Holly Cole, or Lucinda Williams alone would have brought a royal touch to the album with a single duet; adding Rosanne Cash, Amy Helm, Mary Margaret O’Hara, Patty Scialfa, Sam Phillips, Serena Ryder, Pam Tillis, Sara Watkins, Cassandra Wilson, Janiva Magness, and Exene Cervenka to the bet makes the stakes almost too high.
These fourteen distinct voices, crowded as they are into a single album, threaten to obscure each other’s individual efforts. They also risk shading the more modest vocal contributions of the boys in the band, all of whom are good singers, rather than legendary vocalists.
That said, while the album may not win on its most obvious feature — the hand full of face cards — Kings and Queens takes the pot anyway on its far greater merits of writing, arranging, and production.
Wilson, Linden and Fearing are savvy songwriters, award-winners all who can craft with the best of them. With a little help from the likes of Josh Findlayson of The Skydiggers, indie darling Ron Sexsmith, the late Willie P., Pam Tillis and Buddy Miller among other contributors, they’ve dealt themselves a damn fine hand on Kings and Queens.
Arrangements that favour the individual guest voices and their unique contributions are the album’s strongest suit.
Among a slew of solid contributions, here’s a sample: “Golden Sorrows” lovingly contrasts Cassandra Wilson’s low, smoky whisper against an understated Stephen Fearing; “Got You Covered” pairs perpetually perky Colin Linden with an equally upbeat Roseanne Cash; and on the opening track, “If I Can’t Have You”, Lucinda Williams and Tom Wilson prove two powerful trains can share a track without going off the rails.
Grammy and Juno winner Colin Linden’s production is masterful. He builds a simple roots-rock frame, comprising mostly electric and acoustic guitars, augmented by occasional organ and piano, on the unshakable foundation of John Dymond’s bass and Gary Craig’s drums. Linden avoids exaggerated gestures like wailing solos, monster percussion or wall-of-sound instrumental backdrops. A clean, carefully layered, joyful, almost live sound emerges, the perfect backdrop for a series of studies in song.
And the songs are very strong. While the record may lack an obvious standout single (perhaps because there are too many contenders), the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Each one of the fourteen songs, in blues, rock, roots, country, folk and gospel flavours, stands on its own as a composition. As a recording, each underscores the unique qualities of its respective guest “queen” vocalist.
While there are arguably too many tracks, particularly for an album of duets with numerous big-name guests, there are no weak links in this chain. It’s easy to imagine any one of the vocalists making her particular track from Kings and Queens a part of her repertoire, and why not? The material is that good.
B&RK gain a lot by adding a female voice, even if they lose a little by adding too many of them. Perhaps the band would consider adding a lone queen to their hand — Serena Ryder has the voice, the chops, the guts, and the Canadian roots provenance for the job — on the next record.
On this record, it’s safe to say Blackie and the Rodeo Kings gambled big, and won. The contributions of the queens reveal the work of three kings, and that’s a pretty good hand.
When the chips are down, Kings and Queens is a record well worth the ante. Consider it a sure bet.