Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, Massey Hall
On the 25th of February, 2017, Blackie and the Rodeo Kings (BaRK) made their way to Toronto’s Massey Hall for a nearly sold out concert, as the very first stop on their Kings and Kings tour across Canada.
I think it’s safe to say that I haven’t experienced a rock concert quite like this before. To be clear, BaRK is a folk rock-alternative country band that I hadn’t heard of until I attended this music concert. BaRK’s music is eclectic, drawing influences from many different genres; even with my minimal musical knowledge, I could detect blues and country tones. But this one show, jampacked with so many guest artists, convinced me to hop on the BaRK train.
I really loved that, just like their last two albums Kings and Kings and Kings and Queens, this show was such a collaboration between different artists. It was a completely unique concert for me because I’d never seen so many guest appearances in one show. BaRK is just a three-man band made up of Tom Wilson, Stephen Fearing and Colin Linden, but that night, the audience was treated to performances from eight other musicians as well. I don’t think any of us attending knew just how much of a royal treatment we’d be getting.
On stage playing the background instruments throughout the entire show were musicians that BaRK had played with for several years, as many as over three decades! With John Dymond on the bass, Gary Craig on the drums, and other guest performers on the organ and keyboard, they were a force to be reckoned with! Wilson pounded it out with his growling, grisly vocals and Fearing filled the halls with his more country twang; Linden rounded it out with his full, smooth voice. They complemented each other beautifully, each bringing a different tonality to build an impressive harmony. Even a newbie to their music can tell that they’ve been at the game for years. They all had amazing control over their voices, easily pulling vocal dips and turns.
Thompson Wilson (Tom Wilson’s son) opened for BaRK, and then appeared on stage again a couple more times throughout the rest of the show. He performed ‘Beautiful Scars’ with Tom Wilson, a song they had co-written. Truthfully, when they sung together, I couldn’t hear Thompson at all, and it might as well have just been Tom singing. But he lost himself completely in the song on stage, and one couldn’t help but be mesmerized by that.
Linden then introduced Samantha Martin, the only female vocalist of the night, one who comes from a background of roots Americana music. When she walked on stage, I immediately recognized her—and not in the way you’d expect. Earlier, I’d tried to pick up my ticket at will call, but the lady at the box office had told me my ticket was waiting at stage door. Hence, I found myself rounding the corner and walking down a creepy dark alley. This lady was standing outside the stage door, punching out texts on her phone. Unsure if I was supposed to just go inside, I asked her if she worked here. She looked up, surprised, then said, laughing, “Eh, well, not every night.” Now, seeing that same woman on stage effortlessly belting out lyrics in a voice so raspy it was almost screamo, I realized I had just unwittingly asked a famous powerhouse singer if she was who I should get my concert ticket from. Thankfully, if she was offended, she didn’t show it.
Linden also used his connections from his hit TV show “Nashville” to bring Sam Palladio and Charles Esten on board. Palladio had a magnetic stage presence, and a buttery smooth voice that could sink knees. I took the video below.
Esten performed his upcoming single ‘So I Cry’ with so much haunting emotion that I literally could not tear my eyes away from him; I think that was the one moment during the whole show that the entire hall held their collective breath. Time hung suspended while Esten sang as if there was only one person in the audience. When these guys came on stage and serenaded the audience, a couple of girls one row in front of me began shouting their heads off, starstruck by their guest appearances. The enthusiasm of other audience members made me grin uncontrollably at times. Yes. This is what music is all about. Feeling.
Their voices would have been enough of an amazement in and of themselves, but what really got the crowd going was the obvious camaraderie between the artists. Throughout the songs, BaRK not only engaged with the audience, they engaged with each other. Sometimes, they’d turn their backs to the audience and sing to their guest artists, grinning at each other like crazy cats. Other times, they’d pair up and share a microphone, jamming to the music in synchronized movements. At the peak of their show, the vocalists all gathered around a single mike and alternated between solo and group runs; by the end of that performance, the entire hall was giving them a standing ovation.
I have to say, it was interesting to watch a band that first came together when I was but a wee toddler. Their demographic is, needless to say, an older generation—but that’s a wonderful thing to witness! As I scanned the faces in the crowd, nine out of ten people seemed to be in at least their forties, quite a number white-haired or balding—but they were all watching the band completely enamoured, and giving the loudest applause in between songs. I found this a much more respectful crowd, one that listened to the songs in their entirety before applauding, but one that was no less enthusiastic. When the band walked off the stage, all three floors of audience continued cheering—oh, how the hall shook! Needless to say, the band came back out and did an encore. “I think we’re going to do a few more songs,” Fearing said, “If that’s alright with you guys,” to which someone yelled, “You can play all night!”
My Only Criticism
My only criticism of the show was that it should have been in a different venue. I don’t think Massey Hall, as impressive and beautiful as it is, was the right place for a concert like this. Halfway through the show, Wilson joked about the people from his hometown of Hamilton, Ontario. He dedicated one of the set list songs to “the people in Fortinos”, a grocery store in Hamilton, who he said would ask him, “Oh, you’re still doing music, eh?”, to which he would reply, “Yeah, but now I’m playing in Massey Hall.” Massey Hall is kind of like the Madison Square Garden of Toronto—it’s internationally heralded as the place to perform; if you get the chance to play there, you’ve made it. Even so, as Wilson announced to a guffawing crowd, the people in Fortinos replied, “Where’s that?”
Still, for a rock concert (even if technically folk rock), I’d expected a general standing area. Instead, the hall was just made up of rows and rows of seats. At many points, the music made you want to get up and dance, or when it was edgier, slam your head about. Throughout the show, I saw people bobbing their heads, shaking their shoulders and moving their arms, and found myself doing the same—but all confined to our crammed seats. Have you ever been so moved by music that you wanted to groove, but couldn’t because your environment physically restrained you? The energy in the hall was so tangible that it sometimes distracted from the performance, because instead of just losing yourself in the music, you became aware of the armrests cornering you and your knee hitting the back of a seat. So, that was frustrating.
Overall, a wonderful experience and a great way to be introduced to a legendary band. 4.5 out of 5 stars.