Halifax is one of those places that has a rich and storied musical history, but due in large part to its location in relation to the rest of the country, it tends to be omitted from countless “Cross-Canada” tours. This is the case with a variety of shows and tours, but those acts who manage to land on a Halifax stage tend to fall in love, and we seldom get overlooked again. While the frequency of those acts playing shows here isn’t as often as we may like, at least they remember to return to the East Coast. This was the case this past Thursday night, when Blackie and the Rodeo Kings made a triumphant return to Halifax, this time playing the Rebecca Cohn Auditorium. Tom Wilson likened the Halifax crowds to a drunken bride, as they are a lot of work, but are ultimately worth it.
This talented Canadian super-group, who took their moniker from the title of Willie P Burnett’s third album Blackie and the Rodeo King, is comprised of Tom Wilson (formerly of Junkhouse fame, and currently a member of Lee Harvey Osmond), singer Stephen Fearing, and slide guitar wizard/producer Colin Linden. These three talented musicians enjoyed a fair amount of success unto themselves, but when you put them together on stage, the real magic happens. The folk-infused bluesy roots-rock sound is undeniable, as the band’s vibe and style feel as if they were born from those hazy, poorly-lit, hole-in-the-wall dive bars. I remember seeing the band play the Marquee Ballroom back in 2004 and just absolutely crushing, but tonight was set to be a bit different, as the Cohn is no dingy dive bar.
When you wandered into the auditorium, past all of those downing a pre-show beer, spirit or cocktail, the first thing you noticed was that the band’s gear was set up in the middle third of the stage. In all fairness, the band at its core is a trio, with a few supporting players out on the road. Once the band sauntered on-stage and greeted the appreciative soft-seater crowd, you could see that the set up was intimate and ideal, with enough space to move freely, while being close enough to share that camaraderie. The set wasn’t more than a handful of songs deep, before those in attendance could see that this room fit the band like a glove. The large expansive auditorium added a resonance and warmth that a smaller room would physically be unable to accommodate.
About ¾ of the way through the show, Tom Wilson recounted his first encounter with Gord Downie, and it was the same story that Wilson shared on social media shortly after the news of Downie’s passing spread. The dizzying depth of Wilson’s gravelly baritone was hypnotic and engaging, and as he told his story of this initial meeting, you could hear a pin drop in the room. We would be nearly as rapt if Tom opted to recite the phone book. Once he wrapped up this recollection, Fearing, Wilson and Linden treated the Haligonian crowd to a fantastic cover of The Tragically Hip’s “Ahead by a Century”.
This was a night to sit back and allow the band’s bluesy swagger and greasy slide guitar to wash over you, and exonerate you from the troubles of the outside world for a couple of hours. If you haven’t had an opportunity to take in a Blackie and the Rodeo Kings show, you are truly missing out. It doesn’t matter if you catch them in a similar soft-seated venue, in an intimate club, or a bigger rock n’ roll club, this band is a Canadian treasure, that are as talented as they are under-appreciated.