BLACKIE AND THE RODEO KINGS
With: Terra Lightfoot and Digging Roots
Where: Royal Theatre, 805 Broughton St.
When: Nov. 10, 8 p.m.
Tickets: $41.50-$59 from the Royal McPherson box office (250-386-6121) or rmts.bc.ca
Tom Wilson was feeling a little worse for wear Tuesday, having just stepped off a tour bus that transported folk-rockers Blackie and the Rodeo Kings from Edmonton to Vancouver in one long haul.
“I’ve been living on a bus for a weeks,” Wilson said. “But this is standard. The bus breaks down, then the weather comes. It’s Canada in November. It’s f—-ed. But the tour itself is great. It’s so energizing.“
It certainly isn’t the first time Wilson has made the trek across the country in such a manner — he’s been in the music business since the early 1980s — nor is it liable to be his last. And he’s okay with that arrangement. “It’s rejuvenating, despite all the things you thought you never wanted to do again in your life, like live on a bus for weeks at a time,” Wilson said with a laugh.
The relationship between Wilson, 63, and his bandmates in Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, Colin Linden and Stephen Fearing, is worth the sacrifice. The three musicians, each of whom have individual careers in music, have spent their 27 years together while spread out across the country, which makes the easiest obstacle infinitely more difficult, due to differing time zones and hometowns (Fearing lives in Victoria, while Wilson is based in Hamilton, Ontario, and Linden is stationed in Nashville, Tennessee).
The project began as a loosely assembled unit, with no plans of ever touring — a “non-project,” Wilson said — so everyone knew what they were in for when they signed on for a quick 1996 recording session paying tribute to singer-songwriter Willie P. Bennett.
“I left the recording studio 27 years ago this January, shook hands with everybody, got in a car and went to the airport. It was really great. We did these songs that basically shaped my musical life [Blackie and the Rodeo Kings are named after Bennett’s 1978 song and album, Blackie and the Rodeo King] and I thought that was it.”
The resulting album, High or Hurtin’: The Songs of Willie P. Bennett, became a surprise hit for the group, and earned the trio a 1997 Juno Award nomination for Best Roots & Traditional Album: Group. Offers from concert promoters soon followed, “and here we are,” Wilson said.
Blackie and the Rodeo Kings did not become one of the top roots acts in the country by accident. Wilson said at one point they made a decision to succeed, and not just survive; appearances at Massey Hall in Toronto and the National Arts Centre in Ottawa were the result. Wilson said he has never taken those achievements for granted.
“We were a band that survived in folk clubs and small, small theatres and church basements, until about 12 years ago when we decided to take a step and be bold. It doesn’t matter if it’s the biggest theatre in town or the smallest, that’s where we are supposed to be. It’s a leap of faith every time you go on tour, because it’s never a slam dunk.”
The unique aspect of Blackie and the Rodeo Kings is the unlikely assembly of its three main members, each of whom have strong, well-established personalities. Wilson, who won Juno Awards on his own and as a member of ’90s rockers Junkhouse, was arguably the most visible member when they came together as a unit, but in conversation he defers to the talents of both Linden (a Grammy Award-winning producer) and Fearing (who has earned five Juno Award nominations, including one win, as a solo artist).
“I’m in a band that can turn on a dime,” Wilson said. “They are so good.”
Blackie and the Rodeo Kings released their 11th studio album, O Glory, in July but have just begun to tour in support of the recording. The 18-date tour got underway Oct. 25, and will keep the band on the road through mid-December. They have welcomed surprise guests at various stops, including Colin James and Daniel Lanois. For dates in Victoria (at the Royal Theatre tonight) and Nanaimo (at the Port Theatre on Saturday), guests Terra Lightfoot and Digging Roots will be on hand.
Tickets have been selling well, which is an amazing feat after a quarter century of unpredictable activity, Wilson said. “We have never had a hit on the radio. A lot of people judge their art and their purpose by those standards, and that’s wrong. As people who are working artists, we should be allowed to create freely without the confines of numbers and charts or anything like that.
“You’ve got to live in the moment. I’m 63 years old, and you know what? These experiences mean more to me now than they ever have in my life. And I’ve been living on buses for 30 years. Now, the camaraderie — the brotherhood, the sisterhood — it’s a family. And it feels fantastic.”