Blackie & the Rodeo Kings,
Swinging from the Chains of Love
(True North, 2009)

The John Henrys,
Sweet As the Grain
(9LB, 2008)

One is tempted to hear Blackie & the Rodeo Kings (known to themselves and fans as BARK) and the John Henrys as Canadian answers to The Band, except that in its classic line-up the last-named was fourth-fifths Canadian. It's further worth noting, though, that Swinging from the Chains of Love -- a retrospective on BARK's career from the mid-1990s to the present -- shares two cuts with the last Band album (Jericho, a neglected gem cut in 1985, released in 1993 and led by three of the original members) as well as a bandmate, the late pianist Richard Bell.

Even so -- as Rob Bowman's excellent liner notes inform us clueless United Stations to whom BARK has been only a name 'til now -- the core group, roots-rockers Colin Linden, Stephen Fearing and Tom Wilson (all pursuing independent recording careers and continuing to do so), came together out of shared affection for the songs of (the now-deceased) Willie P. Bennett, unknown on this side of the border. In fact, the group takes its name from a Bennett song.

Four Bennett tunes appear among the 14 on this eminently listenable disc, the work of seasoned, smart pros with ears and chops as keen as could be asked.

Among the high points is a furious hard-rock version of "Folsom Prison Blues," which is said to have brought tears -- in a good way -- to the eyes of Johnny Cash. BARK does for that country-folk standard what The Band did for "Long Black Veil" on Music from Big Pink.

From their name -- and their label's (courtesy of the tradition: "Nine-pound hammer killed John Henry/ But it won't kill me") -- one might presume the John Henrys to be a neo-oldtime string band. The title song, which doubles as the opener, quickly deflates that expectation with its unabashed embrace, at least for that one cut, of 1970s California country-rock. On the other hand, band guitarist/banjo player Doug Gouthro's "Ain't Gonna Drink No More" has much of the sound and content of antique Southern too-late-sober laments, perhaps not incidentally Frank Proffitt's "I'll Never Get Drunk No More."

Even with their evident appreciation for older musical traditions, the Henrys are first of all a rock band. They play full, fat chords with full-tilt rhythm sections, and they're as likely to pay homage to other rockers, albeit other rooted ones. "No More Rock 'n' Roll," written by the band's guitar/keyboard man Steve Tatone, calls up the spirit of rockabilly and shows it a deserved good time. Rey Sabatin Jr. (guitar, mandolin) does the same for CCR in "Thought Yourself Lucky" but quotes Woody Guthrie in the bargain.

review by
Jerome Clark

9 May 2009

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