I've been a fan of Blackie and the Rodeo Kings for many years, and look forward to the new releases with eager anticipation. I'd heard a duets album was in the works, and hoped for the best, but with some anxious fear -- it could turn out to be one of those boring compilation albums calculated to fulfill some sort of contractual obligation.
I need not have worried. The project was perfectly conceived and immaculately executed, and the resulting CD is easily among the best I've heard this year. Or any year for that matter.
Blackie and the Rodeo Kings (BARK to fans) is comprised of Colin Linden, Sephen Fearing and Tom Wilson. All are accomplished and successful musicians in their own right. Colin, a wide-eyed protégé of Howlin' Wolf at the age of 12, is an astounding guitarist, in demand as a session musician and Nashville-based producer; Stephen is a multiple-award-winning singer-songwriter based in Canada, and also an ace guitarist (see here for a profile in Guitar Player); Tom, the rocker of the group, was the leader of Junkhouse (a primal Canadian band), and has worked with many prominent musicians. All three are excellent singers, accomplished songwriters and cool people. And together they are greater than the sum of their parts.
BARK has evolved over time. Originally conceived as a cover band for the work of beloved Canadian folk/roots icon Willie P. Bennett, the original recording was so successful (artistically and commercially) that multiple recordings followed. While each member has a very successful separate career, the BARK persona keeps catching waves.
"Kings and Queens" is really a tribute to the respect afforded BARK in the roots and folk communities, and to the address book kept by producer Linden. Thirteen women offered up their musical services to the project, and it's hard to imagine a more illustrious group. Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams and Rosanne Cash are roots/alt-country icons; Cassandra Wilson is one of the most successful jazz singers around today, as is Canadian Holly Cole; Patti Scialfa (the Boss's wife) can pick her projects; Sarah Watkins of Nickel Creek and Serena Ryder are younger musicians making a big splash; and Amy Helm is emerging as a full fledged star, from under the wing of dad Levon. Some of the other women on the record were less familiar to me, but I'm going to be following Janiva Magness, Exene Cervenka, Sam Phillips and Mary Margaret O'Hara very closely in the future.
The support provided to these women is exceptional. All three BARK members are fine singers and songwriters in their own right, and each partners with several of the women on uniformly exceptional songs. While most of the songs are written or co-written by members of the band, the lead male vocal isn't always taken by the writer -- great care has been taken to match song to singers on both sides of the mike.
Instrumentally, the CD sings! Colin has a reputation for bringing out the best in the musicians he is producing, due in large part to his own prowess on the guitar and his complete understanding of the dynamics of musical interplay. His solos, and in particular his slide solos, are total ear candy, and the overall production is sublime -- but not so polished that it loses its edge.
The cuts vary quite a lot in form. On the one hand, Lucinda Williams provides graceful harmonies to Colin's lead on If I Can't Have You; on the other, Amy Helm does a full-fledged alternate-verse duet with Tom on I'm Still Loving You. Cassandra Wilson and Stephen have voices in a similar range -- they do alternate verses of Golden Sorrows, but Cassandra also does harmony behind Stephen's lead, and provides what I can only describe as a shimmering vocal golden glow surrounding and embracing Stephen's voice.
It's hard to choose favorites, all the tracks are great. Of Colin's tracks, I'd have to say that the duet with Emmylou Harris is outstanding. Step Away, the sole Willie P. Bennett title on the recording, was reserved for the queen of queens, and she knocks it out of the park. Colin's understated vocal and guitar work provide excellent counterpoint, and the overall effect is simply outstanding.
Amy Helm's song with Tom on I'm Still Loving You is perfect country pop, with both singers in excellent form. They often sing in a similar range, perfectly complementary, with Amy providing high harmonies when not taking a chorus or verse. Colin's stinging guitar solo is the perfect counterpoint. One of the video links below is of a rehearsal at Levon Helm's Woodstock studio, featuring a very pregnant Amy and the whole band.
For me, though, the highlight of the project is undoubtedly Stephen's duet with Serena Ryder on Black Sheep. As Colin has noted, it's a very personal song for Stephen, and it's presented with great sensitivity and impact. Serena's opening verse is completely seductive, and the interplay of the two voices and guitar throughout the body of the song is simply beautiful. And then Serena closes it off oh so nicely:
. . .the woods are alive with the murmur of spring
the snow melts away and the creek starts to sing
when the shepherd's asleep the black sheep leaves the fold
I'm looking for love. . .
Three in-studio songs from CBC Radio (including the Serena Ryder track below, but audio-only)
The band performed live-in-the-studio for CBC Radio, and the performance was captured for an excellent professional video. Here we have Serena Ryder joining the group for Black Sheep:
Amy Helm joined the band for a rehearsal of I'm Still Loving You at her dad's Woodstock studio. The video isn't perfect, but it's a nice documentation of the process: