Respected veterans in Canada, practically unknown in the States, Blackie and the Rodeo Kings (fans call them BARK) nonetheless proudly carry the Americana torch initially lit by fellow Canadians the Band. Originally formed in 1996 as a one-off side project for successful singer/songwriters Tom Wilson, Stephen Fearing and Colin Linden to collaborate as a tribute to one of their influences Willie P. Bennett, the threesome have proven so popular that seven albums and 17 years later they have become one of Canada’s premier roots outfits.
Credit their unanticipated longevity to each member maintaining a solo career in addition to their work as a third of Blackie, along with the group’s restless, creative spirit to push their own envelope. Their previous 2011 release had them inviting first tier female vocalists such as Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams and Rosanne Cash among others to duet on each of its 14 tracks. For their eighth release, BARK strips down and goes primarily acoustic, yielding yet another terrific disc in a career that hasn’t had any musical missteps. Like the Band, who also featured three strong lead singers, each member shares a third of the frontman load as the others join for harmonies and the occasional duet.
But don’t let the unplugged tag pigeonhole this as soft, reflective or syrupy. Bass and drums kick up the adrenaline a notch and along with mid-tempo blues rockers such as Fearing’s swampy “Everything I Am” and Wilson’s J.J. Cale-ish “Gotta Stay Young,” this never remains quiet for long. Ballads like the Linden and Gary Nicholson penned “Reinventing the Wheel of Love” and “Blow Me a Kiss” tap into an Everly Brothers 60s spirit with instantly hummable melodies that leap from the speakers. The title cut, written and sung by Linden in his typically dusky voice, references his own move from Canada to Nashville and is one of his finest, most moving compositions. That’s saying plenty for a guy with a solo catalog of nearly a dozen albums.
The production (also by Linden), audio mix, playing, and songwriting capture the shared spirit of the trio who have seldom sounded better. Those new to this unusually named act can start here and work back through a catalog that will provide hours of superb, often revelatory listening.