Tag Archives: Bruce Cockburn

CROW Sessions Spotlights Stephen Fearing

By Bill Monahan

On Tuesday April 24th, Crow Bar and Variety in Collingwood presents the third in its special series of dinner shows, this time featuring singer-songwriter Stephen Fearing.  The early dinner-show format, with the admonition, “Shut the F@#k Up and Listen”, is designed to give audiences extra insight into the artists featured with a mix of stories and songs.  Part of the show on Tuesday will be an interview on stage conducted by writer and broadcaster Jeff Woods “asking some of the hard questions”.

Stephen Fearing, a veteran singer-songwriter, winner of  two Juno Awards, a Canadian Folk Music Award and a West Coast Music Award, has been building an international reputation since the release of his first self-titled, self-produced cassette in 1986.  He is probably best known as one of the founding members of Blackie and The Rodeo Kings, but during his decades with them he has continued to develop a solo career that includes collaborating with the Northern Irish singer-songwriter Andy White, almost two decades as a solo artist on the prestigious True North label, conducting songwriting workshops, and producing records by other artists that include Suzie Vinnick’s Juno-nominated “Happy Here”, for which he co-wrote most of the songs.

“When I started in this business it was a very different landscape and certainly there was a lot more emphasis put on just being one-dimensional,” he says, “You know, ‘don’t confuse the audience’, just be the thing that the record company is trying to sell you as and stick to that.  I think a lot of musicians have an interest to try different things, not just other styles but collaborating, performing with other players gives you a chance to try a different hat and that kind of thing.  The way the business is working now, you’ve really got to be able to spread yourself around, do different things, multiple income streams.  But just from a selfish point of view of keeping yourself interested, the more ways you find to can skin a cat, as it were, the better.”

Like a lot of veteran artists, Stephen Fearing has lived through the seismic change in the music industry that occurred with the advent of the Internet, and he’s learned to adapt.  He’s live through the change from the days when a musician was seen as “somebody who rolls out of bed at noon and picks up a guitar and then is just kind of magically transported to the show and then to a party afterward,” to the way things are now, “when so much that needs to be done is the artists’ job.”

Second Great Show at Desboro Hall This Weekend

The Desboro Music Hall is proving this season to be a great value, presenting high quality performers in the ideal setting of an old church for just $20 a ticket ($25 at the door).  Their first show a month ago featured the virtuoso duo, My Sweet Patootie, who combined great musicianship with a highly energetic and engaging stage show.  They are continuing in that vein this month with James Hill and Anne Janelle, a husband and wife team that combines the unlikely pairing of ukulele and cello to create a unique musical offering.  Their first duo recording in 2009, True Love Don’t Weep,  won them critical praise and a Canadian Folk Music Award for Best Traditional Album of the Year.  It included traditional folk tunes and original songwriting.  They subsequently recorded and toured separately but now they have returned to the duo format, appreciating its unique value.  As Anne is quoted on their website, “I think we both came to realize, each in our own way, that the duo is our strongest musical offering.”

Both have won accolades for their songwriting, with R2 magazine calling Anne’s songs “inventive, entertaining, beautifully written and brilliantly performed” and Trad Magazine describing James’ songs as encapsulating “joie de vivre, tenderness and musical perfection.”

Both enjoy stretching the boundaries of their instruments, and passing along their insights through teaching.  Anne has performed with such varied artists as Kanye West, Bruce Cockburn, and Holly Cole while experimenting deeply with free improvisation in both music and dance while James co-authored the Ukulele in the Classroom method book series with J. Chalmers Doane, the trail-blazing teacher who pioneered the use of ukuleles in Canadian schools and  has taught throughout Canada and the United States, as well as in Europe, Japan, Singapore and New Zealand.

As if bringing world class musicians to Desboro is not enough, each of the summer series of concerts also features an engaging opening act.

In concert they have been universally praised for an engaging show, with critics citing “a crystal clear sound filled with warmth” and Anne’s “gorgeous syrupy voice”.  The duo has toured Europe and Asia and now are finding themselves in the little hamlet of Desboro where they are sure to be met with an audience that fully appreciates their singular offerings.

My Sweet Patootie Kicks Off Desboro Music Hall’s Summer Season

This Saturday, Apr. 22nd, the Desboro Music Hall will be kicking off its second concert season with the international folk/jazz trio, My Sweet Patootie, a  show that Driftwood Magazine describes as “two parts exemplary musicianship, one part vaudeville comedy”.  The opening act will be Alicia Toner from Canada’s East Coast.

The Desboro Music Hall was created when brothers Phil and Joe Klages bought the historic Anglican church in town.  Ever since the community centre closed down there had been a gap in the local culture and Phil and Joe, music fans who grew up in Desboro, saw the church as an ideal venue for concerts and other community activities.  Their inaugural year was a great success, a mixture of local musicians as well as acts like Oh Susanna, Alfie Smith and Mark Reeves.  Their choice of featured acts reflects the affection local audiences feel for roots based music and they have the good taste to include only the best purveyors of the style.  It is the kind of concert series that you can attend knowing that it will be good because of the care with which it was put together.  This year’s series starts and ends with exemplary performers who also happen to be Meaford residents, starting with My Sweet Patootie, who reside in Meaford when they are not on tour, and ending in October with The Honey Brothers, featuring Meaford talents Drew McIvor and Jayden Grahlman, along with Jay Stiles.

My Sweet Patootie was formed as a duo in 2007 when the long-running Canadian roots band Tanglefoot disbanded after decades of touring.   The two halves of Tanglefoot took off in different directions.  One half teamed up with Meaford-based drummer and singer-songwriter Beaker Granger to form RPR (stands for Richie/Parrish/Richie) and put the emphasis on roots rock.  The Patootie half took off in an entirely different direction and, now after several years of touring and recording, they have evolved into a totally unique live act with recordings that have a sheen to them combining nostalgia with superlative musicianship.

If they were a very serious act the audience would be moved by their extraordinary musicianship.  If they were mediocre players, their energetic showmanship would easily carry the day.  When the two elements are combined they put on an irresistible show.

Both Terry Young and Sandra Swanell of My Sweet Patootie are classically trained, Terry in voice and Sandra in violin and viola.  Terry’s roots, though, go back to Canadiana folk and his fingerpicking guitar style was influenced by players like Bruce Cockburn.  Sandra was the principal violist of the Georgian Bay Symphony and fronted the Celtic art-rock band The Shards before joining Tanglefoot in 2005.  Despite her classical training her violin more often than not echoes the “hot jazz” of Stephane Grapelli.  Together they took their superlative instrumental chops and applied it to a hybrid of folk, Celtic and old jazz.  All of these elements can be heard in their performances and their recordings.  They mix evocative covers with their own originals which are simultaneously moving and whimsical.

Blackie And The Rodeo Kings To Play In Collingwood

Blackie And The Rodeo Kings will be playing at concert at Collingwood’s Historic Gayety Theatre on Sunday, Feb. 26th, the second stop on their new tour to promote their latest album “Kings And Kings”, released late last year.  After the kickoff concert at Massey Hall the night before, they will coming up to the southern shore of Georgian Bay at the behest local music promoter Steven Vipond.  “Steve’s an angel,” says Blackie co-founder Tom Wilson, “and you need guys like that in the community who do it for the music”.  Local fans can be grateful indeed to have a chance to see a band of this quality.

Willie P. Bennett

Although they are categorized as “Americana” music, Blackie And The Rodeo Kings are to some extent the archtypical Canadian band.  They began as a gesture of love toward the legendary singer-songwriter Willie P. Bennett (taking their name from one of his songs), who ranked high in their collective esteem.  “Willie’s music was just so powerful,” says Wilson, “but just when it looked like success for him was just down the road, he would always take a turn right into the ditch.  This was our way of supporting what he gave all of us”

The three principals who came together to make up Blackie And The Rodeo Kings, Stephen Fearing, Colin Linden, and Tom Wilson were already highly respected Canadian talents at the time, with Junos, platinum sales and even film appearances in their individual histories.  It wasn’t so much a matter of them hitching their fortunes to Willie P. Bennett’s as it was of hitching his star to theirs.  And this reflects an essential element of the band’s mindset: they exist not just to promote their own (formidable) talents but to share with their audience the talents of other (mainly Canadian) artists for whom they have the greatest respect.

It began with “High or Hurtin’: The Songs of Willie P. Bennett” twenty years ago.  As they continued to record new albums, they added tributes to other great and sometimes underrated Canadian tunesmiths such as Bruce Cockburn, Fred J. Eaglesmith and David Wiffen.  In a band that had excellent songwriters built in, it was inevitable that they would eventually record albums that were all originals of their own.  But that would never be a permanent situation.  Their sixth album, “Kings and Queens” was a collection that brought their favourite female artists to join them on each track.  Along with high profile American artists like Roseanne Cash and Emmylou Harris, they included such Canadian treasures as Mary Margaret O’Hara, Holly Cole, and Serena Ryder.  Their sequel, “Kings And Kings” teams them up with another mix of great talents, male this time, that includes vocal as well as composition credits from Bruce Cockburn, Rodney Crowell, Nick Lowe and Dallas Green, among others.  And they haven’t forgotten Willie P., including on the album his song “This Lonesome Feeling” brought to life by Vince Gill.

Blackie And The Rodeo Kings have become, as a band, a great Canadian treasure in their own right.  But they have never forgotten nor ignored the idols of their youth, stretching back to the days when Colin and Tom haunted the coffee houses of the day to catch performance by the artists they continue to pay tribute to.

These days you can count the Canadians winning Grammy Awards to find ample evidence that Canadian music is appreciated well beyond our borders, but it wasn’t always that way and these three guys have been around long enough to remember how tough it has always been for Canadian talent.  If you listen to songs like David Wiffen’s “Coast To Coast Fever” or Willie P. Bennett’s “White Lines” you get a stark portrait of how difficult it has been in the past for Canadian original talent to succeed.  Wilson says they still end every concert with “White Lines”, a song that inspired him to make music his life’s work.

Tom Wilson with his paintings

Tom Wilson has always been a triple threat creative artists and, like his bandmates, he pursues other projects outside of Blackie.  One of Colin Linden’s recent gigs has been as technical supervisor on the TV show “Nashville”.  And Stephen Fearing, in order to join the others on this tour, has had to insert it into his own solo tour, flying in from the U.K. just before the kickoff Massey Hall show, and then picking up his own tour after this tour ends in mid-March.  Tom Wilson has always been musician, artist, and writer simultaneously.  These days he earns a third of his income from his paintings and he’s currently contracted to Random House for a memoir he’s writing with Dave Bidini of The Rheostatics, due out this fall.

To itemize the careers of these three extraordinary creative artists would require a book in itself but it is worth spending a few moments looking at another Tom Wilson project because of what it says about Canadian music and his personal dedication to it.  That project is a band called LeE HARVey OsMond, formed by Wilson in 2009 as a collective that includes members of The Cowboy Junkies, The Skydiggers and 3’s a Crowd (along with Suzie Vinnick).  Like Blackie And The Rodeo Kings, it’s a band that also carries the history of Canadian folk-rock in its personnel, and it is a band built around a specific vision.