Blackie and The Rodeo Kings stretch the Roots rock envelope: They and their guitars sing ‘blood on blood’

4 men with guitars, 1 at drums, performing onstage
Is their BARK worse than their bite? Fortunately, they’re ALL about stopping the biting, a roots-rock resistance. Photo by Sylvie Boivin.

As is often the case, MUSICAlive! uses our soundcheck with Tom Wilson of Blackie & the Rodeo Kings to ask about the instruments he played on their most recent release, O Glory:

“Well, I played the computer. (general laughter) I played the guitar; I sang some. That’s all they let me do.”

Tom mentions the computer because of the remote recording they exemplified during the Covid years, but he also admits to playing “the Rev. Gary Davis’ 1949 J-200: it’s the guitar he taught Bob Dylan and Jerry Garcia how to play ragtime guitar on. It’s kind of a Holy Grail of sorts.”

Which seems like an appropriate summation of what’s to come . . .

We start off by noting the multiple voice harmonies that happen in many of the songs on this album, and ask if that’s a performance focus as well?

“I push that agenda, y’know? I just think that I’m in a band with 2 really wonderful singers. We’ve been together long enough, 27 years now actually, that we have the ability to have that ‘blood on blood’ sound: it’s like when you hear the Everly Brothers. The Beatles had that ‘blood on blood’ sound; the Beach Boys. . . Oasis . . . My son and I, when we tour and sing together have that sound. I think that 27 years together allow us to step into that realm, where you can’t really tell who’s singing: you can’t tell where Stephen lets off and Colin takes over. Or when I join in. So I push the agenda about singing verses together, and building the choruses even larger, y’know?

“I love that sound, and if I can make records with that element involved I walk away pretty happy. thank you for noticing that.”

Points for us! B-)

“We probably started singing like that earlier on, but on this record is an idea that I’m putting together ‘a holy chorus’ for the entirety of the songs. A song like ‘Grand River’: that’s written about the Grand River Tract: the British government gave my people, the Mohawks , 6 miles each side of the Grand River . . . and that land has been turned into cities like Caledonia and Paris and London and Kitchener and Brantford.

Man singing onstage with guitar from side, 3 others visible
The spotlight moves from Colin Linden to Tom Wilson, to this moment with Stephen Fearing; they all enrich the moment. Photo by Sylvie Boivin.

“I went and got arrested there as a land defender with other Mohawks by the OPP . . . Colin and I sing that song right through; there’s an idea of united voices on a song like that, that’s really important. it’s a natural thing.

“We need a group of people singing together because it’s the unity of the message that is going to represent the unity of the people defending the land.”

MUSICAlive! ask Tom about the Resistance which he has described in “Grand River”, and which is also evident in “Far From The Middle”: a less specific resistance, but it’s clearly there.

“that’s a good question. Colin and I also sing “O Glory”; if you gave a Presbyterian hymn an STP oil treatment, I think it would sound something like ‘O Glory’.”

MUSICAlive! laughs and asks if he would really do that?

“Yes! STP Oil treatments really DO make things go faster and quicker and better. (more laughter) Once again, the idea of voices united : you know we live in a world that is pulling us apart from one another, so if we can stand together and sing, if we can stand together and represent a goal for the better, then I think that’s something that should be represented in the music, y’know?

“And singing together, man! Y’know, I grew up in church. I grew up singing with a roomful of voices, (and now) I get to experience being with great singers, so why not exploit that as much as you possibly can, and engage in that? It nurtures you, makes you a better person.”

We ask if they are able to maintain this joined voice idea on tour.

“We add to them. We’ve been bringing some friends along to do some shows: My son Thomson joins us, who’s an outstanding singer; Tara Lightfoot . . . Daniel Lanois . . . Serena Ryder. These are all people (who) are not only from the same community, but it’s almost like we grew up eating in the same kitchen. So we can gather together and sing without effort.”

Woman singing in black dress and boots with guitar onstage
Tara Lightfoot somehow gets Tom Wilson’s 1949 J-200 away from him for awhile, which apparently makes her own guitar jealous. Photo by Sylvie Boivin.

We run into the idea of Daniel Lanois’ participation in their community and recent performances, and ask if he and Brian Eno are an influence on the album’s sound?

“In the same way that Leonard Cohen can lift the bar for you when you’re sitting down to write . . . the creative process is the same, whether you’re painting, or writing a book, or making music (Mr. Wilson is also a successful author and painter: he was the art director for this release). You’re engaging the same particles of the cosmos to visit you. So if I’m reading Leonard Cohen that’s going to raise the bar for me (and) as artists, our job is to open up the doors to possibilities for the next person coming through. Dan Lanois does that. . . . His spirit is attached to a lot of the things that we do, whether it’s evident or it isn’t doesn’t matter, because it’s in the stew.”

MUSICAlive! suggests, especially after seeing them perform following this interview, that the B. A.R.K. whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

“That’s what we discovered in 1996 when we got together. We were tipping our hat to our friend Willie P. Bennett: he was a songwriter back in Ontario who changed all of our lives. … that was 27 years ago, and here I am sitting in a dressing room at the Broadway Theatre in Saskatoon so there you go! Where those things take you, you just don’t know, that’s the creative journey. That’s the excitement of what we do, really! It’s not the money. And it’s not fame: whatever that is, it’s not that. It’s surprise, It’s the journey that you’re on. and we’re still on it, thank God, y’know?”

Having seen this musical ensemble expand it’s possibilities onstage, yes we do know.

5 people with guitars, 1 man at drums, performing onstage
Just when you thought there were enough Rodeo Kings, they invite Tara Lightfoot to lead them in a song. Photo by Sylvie Boivin.

Posted by Carey Rutherford

Author: Carey Rutherford

Swallowed by the mutual loves of words and music (but far too chicken-shit to perform them with a band), Carey’s writing career started slowly as a freelance writer in 2003, starved him nearly to personal bankruptcy until 2008, and changed directions while writing for FastForward, Beacon Calgary, GayCalgary, and Examiner magazines. With the death of many old-school periodicals, and the explosion of musical diversity in Calgary, the modern approach to writing about live music performance in the Calgary region presented uncluttered landscapes for the focussed passion that Carey’s conversations with musicians, drag queens, festival producers and small animals has uncapped. He was moulded by the brilliance of paper-based periodicals old and new (Life, rolling Stone, Swerve! and Adbusters etc.), and sees the info-verse as needing creative, empathetic, but clear-eyed Agents to communicate these performances.