Blackie & the Rodeo Kings, Live at the Festival of Friends, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada (August 10, 2003)

The Festival of Friends is an annual event here in Hamilton, Ontario. Performers must meet the rigid standards of being Canadian citizens, and while in the past it has been almost a "folk" festival, recent years have seen rock acts on the bill. This year a reconstituted Blood, Sweat & Tears played Saturday night. Sunday night the Festival closes, and over the years Jesse Winchester, Bruce Cockburn, Brent Titcomb and others have filled that slot. This year it was Blackie & the Rodeo Kings, fresh from a successful gig at the Edmonton Folk Festival, and a performance in Toronto of Fearing and Linden. But they showed no signs of sagging. The crowd was perhaps a bit thinned out due to earlier rain-showers, but those who stayed were treated to a powerful set by Kathleen Edwards, which warmed everyone up for the Rodeo Kings' last band show of this tour.

After a half hour break/set up time between acts, a rather passionless voice announced, "And now, Blackie & the Rodeo Kings!" Colin Linden's slide guitar roared, Tom Wilson shouted a few obscenities, Stephen Fearing fingered his guitar, and they kicked into the bluesy "Water Or Gasoline," from their fine new album and their live sound was even raunchier than the recorded version. They played songs from BARK almost exclusively, and why not, they are some of the finest songs they've recorded. This trio originally joined forces to pay tribute to the songwriting of Willie P.Bennett, and while they played one of Willie's tunes as an encore, they are developing as a self reliant band. Writing separately and together in various combinations, Blackie & the Rodeo Kings is perhaps the most exciting band in Canada today.

Live there is plenty to listen to, and lots to see. Wilson is the loudest, most vocal, commenting on the sweet smell of marjuana which was wafting towards the stage as he launched into "Stoned." Or encouraging the rather subdued crowd to "make some noise." Fearing is still a bit reserved, the folkie in the group, used to sitting on a stool, and the hushed ambience of the coffee-house, he surprised long-time fans by playing an electric guitar on many of the tunes. Linden on the left side of the stage, changing guitars for each song, bouncing up and down, with the beat, ripping off delicious solos on whatever axe he happened to be grinding. Awesome. And behind them...the tastiest rhythm section since The Band! John Dymond on bass, Gary Craig on drums and the amazing Richard Bell on keyboards. Bell alternates between the stately organ sounds of Garth Hudson, and a maniacal Little Richard on piano, equally at home within the context of the songs the Rodeo Kings have provided.

"If I Catch You Cryin'," "Lock All the Doors," "Song on the Radio," all the best tunes from BARK and then "49 Tons" from the Juno-winning Kings of Love album, with the added surprise of a touch of "Magic Bus" in the middle! They paid tribute to Hamilton legend "Jackie Washington", and invited Bob Lanois, Kathleen Edwards and Wilson's old band Junkhouse to help sing "Swinging From the Chains..."

The only trouble with the Festival of Friends is that it takes place in a beautiful city park, in the centre of a residential district. It has to be over by 11:00pm. This has led to many disappointments over the years, when the music was carrying the crowd and the band into playing longer and louder, so Blackie & the Rodeo kept to the curfew. But they hung around in the guest tent to sign CDs and schmooze. We made our way home and listened to BARK again in the car -- memories of a rockin' good time still fresh in our minds.

[David Kidney]

More information about Blackie and the Rodeo Kings can be found at their Web site.