Blackie And The Rodeo Kings Energize a Quiet Sunday In Collingwood

Review by Bill Monahan of Blackie And The Rodeo Kings at The Gayety Theatre, Feb. 26, 2017

On Hurontario Street in Collingwood, normally quiet on a Sunday night, all the parking spaces were filled both sides of 3rd Street, and people were streaming from them to the Historical Gayety Theatre.  Inside, the capacity crowd had arrived early, anxious to see Blackie And The Rodeo Kings.  Before the concert even began it was clear that this was going to be a great show.  There was already so much excitement in the audience and that is a major ingredient in any concert’s success.  We all knew that this concert was a special gift.  This renowned band, celebrating twenty years together, is the closest thing we have in Canada to a Supergroup, comprised of Colin Linden, Stephen Fearing and Tom Wilson, each legendary in his own right.  Just the night before they had kicked off their latest tour with a sold out show at Massey Hall in Toronto, and for them to be playing a relatively small hall in Collingwood seemed too good to be true.

We can thank Steven Vipond, as much a fan as he is a promoter, for going out on a limb to make it happen.  He’s loved this band since buying a cassette of their first release, “High And Hurtin’ – The Songs of Willie P. Bennett” two decades ago, and they love him back.  “If it wasn’t for Steve,” Tom Wilson said at one point in the concert, “We’d be sitting in a motel room in Sault Ste. Marie, watching reruns on TV.”  They’ll be playing there Monday night and thanks to Steve they were able to get part way there tonight and play a show instead of chilling in a motel.

“Spreading the love is what we do,” Tom Wilson said.  The band’s slogan, “This Band Kills Hate” was emblazoned on a backdrop at the back of the stage, and on the T-shirts they were selling.  As Wilson pointed out, they are not a political band.  They had been formed through a mutual love of the music of Willie P. Bennett and the main ingredient that makes them such an uplifting experience to see is the love that they clearly have for each other.

It’s a family thing.  The opening act, with just a handful of original songs, was Thompson Wilson, Tom’s son, whom Stephen Fearing remembers as a four year old in the wings when the band began way back when.  His voice in not like the bass profundo of his father, it’s closer to Ian Tyson.  His songs are immediately likeable, set firmly in the singer-songwriter tradition, and they were delivered with a great confidence and authority.

Before the band began its long set, Stephen Fearing, took a few minutes to tell us about a charity they are promoting on this tour, as part of their determination to “kill hate”.  Care Canada has been working around the world for seventy years to save lives, defeat poverty and achieve social justice, centred particularly on the rights of women and children.  Not only do they have one of the lowest administration rates of any charity, they help millions around the world by lending money to women to expand their horizons, a worthy cause if there ever was one.

And then the music started.  It was, from the first chord, a joyous celebration, fueled by these three great talents and Colin Linden’s long time rhythm section, Johnny Dymond on bass and Gary Craig on drums.  The songs were roaring with energy and full of heart.  The singular talents of each member shone through as they took turns front and centre: Colin’s stratospheric slide guitar, Stephen’s “Irish tenor” and Tom’s deeply resonant bass vocals.  When they did a Willie P. Bennett song they exploded with an energy that surpassed anything that Willie P. had ever done, without losing the cry from the heart that was a central element of every one of his compositions.  And their take on The Band’s “Acadian Driftwood”, which Colin considered “the best song every written about this country” soared.

But every song soared.  The band was loose and “making it up as we go along,” as Wilson said at one point, “This is semi-professional entertainment”.  There were a few times when everything paused while they decided what to do next.  You could hear someone off-mic saying “Okay, we don’t have to do that one, we can do something else…”  But the audience was so into it, these short delays were no problem.  And whichever song they chose, they did a killer performance of it.

Two songs in particular stood out for me.  One was “The Long Walk To Freedom”, written for Nelson Mandela by Stephen Fearing and Reeny Smith, a beautiful evocation of what freedom really means in these “interesting times”.  Another was “Beautiful Scars”, co-written by Tom and Thomson Wilson, performed by both of them with the band, a song about the bittersweet life of a musician on the road.  “I heard Thompson singing around the house something he had written,” said Tom, “And I thought ‘I need to get a piece of that’”.

It was one of those concerts that seemed to end too soon, even though they played for two hours.  Everyone in the audience knew they had got their money’s worth and more.  How lucky we all were to see a band such as this so close to home.

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