Blackie and the Rodeo Kings' most recent album, Kings & Queens, is a series of duets with some of the best voices in the music industry including Lucinda Williams and Emmylou Harris. An album like this poses an interesting problem: how does a band whose core members are three guys tour an album on which every song includes a female voice--some of them, frankly, seemingly irreplaceable.
The answer, naturally, is to release a new version of the album with even more duets and then bring some of your friends along for a road trip. The Rodeo Kings brought their travelling road show to Vancouver with guests including Kendel Carson, Amy Helm, Exene Cervenka and Matt Anderson (decidedly not a female voice, but whatever.)
First things first though: openers Harlan Pepper played a fairly rousing 40 minutes of twangy and harmonica infused music drawn heavily from their most recent album Young and Old. The band's young sound was a solid opener for the crowd. Great Lakes--sort of a road trip around the geography of central Canada--proved to be a pretty solid crowd pleaser as did Reefer which may have been a little closer to the heart of this particular audience. If you haven't caught the band live yet, make sure you do on their next tour.
After a short break the band hit the stage attired in their by now famous sharply embroidered Nudie style black suits and flanked by a life size vintage portrait of the King and Queen of the long forgotten rodeo. If anybody at the show had any doubts about its country roots they probably ended right about the time the lights hit the band.
Opening with Water or Gasoline got the show off to a good start with solid guitar work from Colin Linden on stage right (the audience's left) and Tom Wilson on stage left kicking any expectations of a quiet, sedate night right out the theatre's doors and into the night.
This was pretty clearly going to be a night that featured some rock and/or roll to go with the twang, but there wasn't a sign of those Queens features so prominently on the band's most recent album yet.
The opening set continued with Let's Frolic and Stoned though, and it wasn't a bad way to warm up at all. The band promptly welcomed local fiddler & singer Kendel Carson to the stage though, and the night was quickly moved along.
Kendel's fiddle playing is a welcome addition to almost any band and she frequently guests with acts when they come through town and her schedule permits. Tonight though, she stepped up to mic to sing the lead vocal on Another Free Woman from the Kings & Queens album (originally performed by Sara Watkins.) It was nice to see Kendel featured a bit more prominently
At this point we're four songs into a set and, frankly, half the audience could have gone home happy. It was that good.
The band was having too much fun for that though, and welcomed Amy Helm to the stage for a performance of If I Can't Have You. Helm's vocal proved as capable as Lucinda Williams' did on the studio version of the song and by this time the audience--or at least a good portion of it--was on its feet to applaud at the end of the song.
Colin Linden stepped up next to provide a bit of an interlude and a schooling in playing the electric guitar with a bottleneck that my notes from the show describe as "unbelievably killer." This slid seamlessly into the bluesy Shelter me Lord followed by Black Sheep, with Carson joining the band again for the latter.
Clearly having a good time, Tom Wilson engaged in a bit of praise for the west coast and our musical tastes while introducing I'm Still Loving You: "I'm from Hamilton," Wilson quipped, "Back in Ontario people got married and dance their first song to the Carpenters ~We've only just begun~ People on the west coast, they danced to Sly and the Family Stone. The west coast has the power of love."
He's not wrong either. Trust me, I know. I grew up on that crappy music not far from Tom Wilson: my father was a Carpenters fan. It's scarred me for life.
Mercifully, that single abbreviated verse was all we heard of 70s adult oriented soft rock before the band got back to business welcoming Exene Cervenka to the stage for Lonsome War and Made of Love
"We're gonna do this one tonight for John Bottomley" Wilson announced before launching into Sometimes it Comes So Easy which--despite not featuring any of the night's guests--proved to be a highlight of the show when Linden, Wilson and Fearing got sidetracked into what my notes for the night describe as a "fucking killer guitar solo." I'm going to stick to that, because I don't think I can provide a much more accurate description.
Apparently not yet satisfied, the band invited the "King of East Coast Soul Music" Matt Anderson to the stage. Matt's deep bluesy voice was a change from previous guests, and Every Hour had the room standing again and clapping along to the beat.
Closing in on curfew, an encore with the band and the complete suite of guests wasn't long in following Anderson's performance. It's a good thing too, because I suspect that if the band had tried to leave without playing one the audience would have dragged them back to the stage. Closing with an Everly Brothers song took the band back to its roots as a side project meant to honour the music of Willie P. Bennett and other favourites.
Blackie and the Rodeo Kings are often described with the word supergroup, a word that always makes me bristle. It's not that it doesn't apply, but it always reminds of of badly contrived 80s bands like Asia and Power Plant, assembled by the producer's soundboard more than a passion for the music itself.
In a two hour set featuring four guest vocalists, some of the best guitar work you'll see on stage and showcasing solid songwriting Blackie and the Rodeo Kings showed that they've got the kind of passion for what they do that translates beautifully live. A group like this can't sustain itself if they're not enjoying themselves, and at the Vogue it was pretty clear that translated straight to the audience.
The hardest thing about gigs like this for me is a rather nice problem to have: the music was so good I wanted to put my camera down and do nothing but listen. I finally did that about five songs in, and it was totally worth it (though I snuck a few shots in during that killer guitar solo.) Next time, I might just listen because that kind of talent is the sort of thing you should just sit back and enjoy: it doesn't come along every day.
Blackie & the Rodeo Kings are wrapping up their tour soon, but there are a few days left. 2011's Kings & Queens album was recently reissued in deluxe format and can be ordered from the band's web site or from iTunes.