Written by Alex Metcalfe & Photos by Lee-Ann Wylie
It was all Zoomers and cowboy boots at Toronto’s premiere music venue, Massey Hall, at last night’s show. As far as I could tell, I was the youngest person at this show by about 25 years. But, don’t let traditionally-cut gray hair fool you, this audience was here to rock.
They came to see one of Canada’s most celebrated blues rock bands from the last 20 years, Blackie & The Rodeo Kings, perform a set that included JUNO-winning classics and some curve balls that I don’t think anybody was expecting.
But, before they could get to the Canadian icons, the Zoomers had to sit through the dang kids in Harlan Pepper, a seriously talented quartet of Hamiltonians who are hells bent on making blues/rock/folk a leading pop genre again (it began a hiatus sometime between Duran Duran and The Backstreet Boys).
Even though there was probably more than a few agèd blues-timers in the audience who refused to believe a quartet of young suburbanites who’ve grown up with air conditioning and computers had what it takes to bring to life a smoky, blues-infused rock sound with humid guitar and freight train rhythms, well, they would have found themselves mistaken about 30 seconds in to Harlan Pepper’s first song in their 30-ish minute set. Harlan Pepper have hit the bulls-eye on a rock/blues sound that is thirsting for mass popular reception.
I could be wrong, but I think that there is a considerably large audience of young hipsters out there who are coming out of their indie rock shell and thirsting for “authenticity 2.0” in the form of a folk/rock renaissance. (Have you heard Metals by Fiest?) With their critical endorsement from CBC, and a growing set list of genuinely enjoyable of non-ageist blues/folk/rock tunes, I’d say Harlan Pepper are poised to lead the charge.
Once Harlan Pepper brought the audience to their feet, a short changeover had Blackie & The Rodeo Kings on stage and ready to rock. Wearing those ridiculously embroidered suits that the band has made a part of their ‘brand,’ Blackie & The Rodeo Kings kicked off a live set that showcased serious Canadian talent.
Blackie & The Rodeo Kings have been on a celebrate-the-fruits-of-their-career binge over the last two years. The release of their seventh studio album, Kings & Queens, is the product of this binge. The album features Blackie & The Rodeo Kings performing new tracks with accompaniment from world-renowned female vocalists. Last night’s Massey Hall show, aptly titled “Kings & Queens Live,” is the icing on the cake; or, as Colin linden put it, a show that “makes our dreams come true.”
While all of the queens from Kings & Queens didn’t make it out for the show, some certainly did. This group of talented ladies included Mary Margaret O’Hara, Amy Helm, Serene Ryder, Ron Sexsmith and Murray McLaughlan. Wait, those last two weren’t ladies… they were just massively successful Canadian folk musicians! That’s right, Ron Sexsmith and Murray McLaughlan popped out on stage to accompany Blackie & The Rodeo Kings on songs whose original collaborators included the likes of Roseanne Cash and Emmylou Harris. As Ron Sexsmith pointed out, these gents were “substitute queens” for the night. I laughed.
It was a real thrill watching an audience of presumably docile middle-aged parent types really come life – giving Blackie & The Rodeo Kings multiple standing ovations throughout their performance. But, I must say, I was thoroughly entertained by the way in which the elaborate light show reflected through the many gray haired heads in the audience. It made me think of two things: that strange fog that has blanketed Toronto that gets coloured in strange ways with the sun; and that I couldn’t help wonder why more young people weren’t at this show? Blackie & The Rodeo Kings’ blend of blues, folk and rock surely has its way with the older crowd, but I would expect a younger audience to resonate with their music when they get to tearing in to their harder tunes with honky-tonk vibes and shredding guitar solos.
Something tells me that Blackie & The Rodeo Kings late-middle career highlight is far from dimming. Hopefully this band of talented Canadian artists will take to the stage in some outdoor music festivals this season and next. Obviously, though, no outdoor show will match the power of the Massey Hall stage, but it would be fun to see this band play in an environment that is just too hot for those tacky jackets!