Giant Sand lead singer and guitar-slinger Howe Gelb has entertained himself over the years with a Lo-Fi country-punk side project called Band of Blackie Ranchette. So when I first heard about Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, I thought the band was yet another pseudonymous effort from the puckish Gelb. However, when it was revealed the latter band was among groups found on George W. Bush’s iPod, it became painfully apparent the two Blackie’s are very, very different.
Blackie and the Rodeo Kings is a Canadian hybrid band, fusing a modern country/alternative rock sound with blues and soul. Imagine Chris Isaak with instrumental back-up by the Cowboy Junkies. Let’s Frolic is their third album, and could easily substitute as a soundtrack for an independent documentary on the Canadian landscape, complete with word portraits of cryptic characters clandestinely abandoning broken dreams in favor of pursuing disreputable ambitions. Along the way, songwriters Stephen Fearin, Colin Linden, and Tom Wilson wrap their stormy songs with silver linings, as their characters find moments of clarity.
Fearin, Linden, and Wilson are the eyes and ears of Blackie, interpreting observations with generous helpings of beautiful acoustic and electric guitar tracks, Dobro, slide, and mandolin. They each share vocal duties, sporting harmonies reminiscent of latter-day Grateful Dead. The Rodeo Kings are made up of Gary Craig on drums and percussion, John Dymond on bass, Richard Bell playing piano, organ, farfisa, and mellotron, with some additional keyboard work from sound engineer John Whynot. Dymond and Craig present a dense, moody backbeat throughout, while Bell blends boogie-woogie key punches with psychedelic, acid soaked grandeur a la the Dead’s Ron “Pigpen” McKernan and Keith Godchaux.
While the music is performed quite well, it’s the songwriting that sets this band apart. There are moments when the lyrics recall the early work of playwright/actor Sam Shepard, who shares Fearin, Linden, and Wilson’s penchant for lost souls on the edge, scraping desperately to hang on to a shred of their humanity. Shepard often allowed his charges to fall into ambiguity, where the maverick personalities emboldening Blackie receive redemption. It is difficult conjuring President Bush listening to the music on Let’s Frolic. Perhaps he subconsciously associates with the theme of recalcitrant loser as potential consecrate.
Whatever Bush’s motives, Let’s Frolic is an extraordinary examination into the crumbling ramparts of our spirit. It achieves a balance between vast self-contemplation while setting your boots to scootin’. Although a chasm of difference exists between the styles of Blackie and the Rodeo Kings in comparison to Gelb’s Band of Blackie Ranchette, the songwriting on Let’s Frolic is as enigmatic as anything Gelb has produced.