Blackie & The Rodeo Kings: Kings and Queens

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Blackie & the Rodeo Kings

Kings and Queens

(File Under: Music/Dramatico/Universal)

[Rating: 4 stars]

After 15 years, a small but impressive clutch of albums and near universal critical praise, Canada’s Blackie & the Rodeo Kings trio haven’t made many inroads south of their border. Chalk that up to an unusual moniker, spotty distribution and the fact that its three members (Tom Wilson, Stephen Frearing and Colin Linden) stay busy with full time solo careers that haven’t made any of them household names in the States.

Perhaps to remedy that, B.A.R.K. (as they’re known to fans) invited thirteen women (the “queens” in the title), many of them icons of American roots music, to add star power and a marketing hook, to their new release. While it smacks somewhat of a gimmick, the result is a marvelously conceived fourteen song set that generally justifies the hype. A few Canadians who aren’t well known in America (Serena Ryder and Mary Margaret O’Hara) appear, but with personalities like Emmylou Harris, Rosanne Cash, Lucinda Williams and Exene Cervanka providing both harmony and duet accompaniment to the scruffy yet classy guys, the effect ranges from moving to hypnotic and even riveting. Others such as Nickel Creek’s Sara Watkins, Ollabelle’s Amy Helm and Sam Phillips may not be as immediately recognizable but all are likely familiar to Americana music fans.

The tunes lean towards beautifully crafted, strummy, melodic ballads with a few token rockers. A barely audible Janiva Magness duets on the rollicking Tom Petty styled “How Come You Treat Me So Bad” and Lucinda Williams’ always distinctive work on the upbeat opening “If I Can’t Have You” lightens the predominantly somber/introspective mood. Cash is particularly effective on the mid-tempo “Got You Covered,” a Linden/Ron Sexsmith co-write. Husky voiced jazz chanteuse Cassandra Wilson brings a unique slant to her co-lead with Frearing on his bittersweet story song “Golden Sorrows” and Patti Scialfa takes Julie Miller’s part to Linden’s Buddy Miller on a cover of the couple’s gospel inflected “Shelter Me Lord.” Colin Linden’s rootsy production is typically atmospheric and open, leaving space for an occasional guitar solo to spar with the male/female yin/yang energy.

Three years in the making, it’s a varied, inspired, and often moving collection that’s never forced or predictable. Hopefully it will provide much deserved American exposure for this talented but thus far under-the-(US) radar male threesome.

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