Sunday, 2 October 2016


Two Nights, Two Shows, Two Venues

Thursday evening was our first experience in Edmonton’s brand new downtown hockey rink. From the outside it resembles a gigantic globule of mercury. The attraction was the roots band Dixie Chicks, the third music act to play the joint since it officially opened a few weeks ago. It was likely their first ever performance where they had to compete for attention against the venue they were booked to headline. Ann and I were honestly equally curious about the Chicks (DCX in social media parlance) and the arena.

When Rogers Place threw open its doors to welcome the media and the curious in September it sparked a frantic civic circle jerk. The Edmonton Journal managed to insert a story about the rink in every section of the paper: news, sports, arts and business. The junior Western Hockey League Oil Kings were stunned by an attendance of more than 18,000 at their season home opener.

Ann and I ate a respectable dinner at Denizen Hall, the gentrified barroom of the Grand Hotel, an infamous flophouse whose main feeder was the recently demolished Greyhound bus station. It used to be the type of place I was afraid to venture into due to a foreboding inkling that things couldn’t possibly end well. We sat before a window sipping pints of Yellowhead lager, micro-brewed just a few blocks away, and studied the arena. A few roof tiles seemed to be missing. Had they blown off? We wondered how long it would take the pouring rains and melting snows to streak and stain its silver skin.

Our tickets situated us in the upper bowl, just a little higher than the peak of Mount Edith Cavell in Jasper National Park. The pitch was steep but nothing compared to the gallery of grey seats in the old Montreal Forum. Behind me four young men alternated whining about some perceived slight in their social milieu in high pitched voices and belching clouds of Coors Light like NASCAR fans. Ann had to share part of her seat with the plump Facebook addict on her left. There must be more legroom on an Air Canada Rouge flight.

The crowd spanned generations and genders. At first I found the arena rock stage effects for an act featuring banjo and fiddle mildly jarring, but the Dixie Chicks play big halls and Rogers Place is a fucking big hall. Natalie Maines, front and centre between founding sisters and angelic harmonizers Martie Maguire and Emily Robison (career stat courtesy of DCX: six husbands and nine babies), was a revelation as a stage performer; she owned the place and a career in stand-up awaits if she wants it. It seems obvious and facile to point out that the Dixie Chicks write good songs, but I think that’s a rare trait these days. They remind me too of Rod Stewart in his glory days in that when they cover somebody else’s work it becomes theirs and possession is nine-tenths of the law of perception. Everybody knows ‘Landslide’ of course, but the surprise showstopper was a staggeringly gorgeous rendition of Prince’s ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ in front of a backdrop of purple rain.

Exiting the concert we trailed two young women who were absolutely giddy with their night’s DCX experience. They took turns addressing each arena staff member thusly: ‘Thank you, Roger! Nice place you’ve got here!’ I laughed at the absurdity of corporate sponsorship and naming rights. Rogers Place does indeed sound like a friend’s basement rec room furnished with a beer fridge and a foosball table.

Friday night Ann and I scaled things back, way back. Blackie and the Rodeo Kings is one of our favourite bands. They receive consistently heavy airplay on our living room stereo. The roots group is a side project of Colin Linden, Stephen Fearing and Tom Wilson, each of whom is an established artist in his own right. Their output is sparse, just eight albums over the course of 20 years.

Sherwood Park is a bedroom city east of Edmonton in neighbouring Strathcona County. I used to think the two places were some distance from each other. The sprawling communities almost abut now, separated simply by a ten-minute stretch of freeway through an industrial, science fiction landscape of refinery tanks, towers and tubes. Festival Place is a warm, intimate space. There are tables in front of the stage and along the sides. The rest of the seating is theatre style although there are not enough short rows to complete the alphabet.

The concert had a welcome, impromptu feel. The three singer-guitarists admitted that they’d just caught up with each other in the dressing room. Stephen Fearing said he’d spent the morning attempting to assemble an IKEA armoire at his home in Victoria, B.C. and was thrilled to leave the project uncompleted. Tom Wilson had been playing acoustic shows with his son in Los Angeles, CA. Ann imagined the group text from Colin Linden to the others: ‘I’m heading up to Edmonton from Nashville to visit family. Should we book a venue for a one-off?’

The show was superb even if the set list was likely hastily assembled backstage. We had the sensation that the life-sized trio was actually performing in our living room, flattening the tabbies’ ears and rattling the windows. Why Blackie and the Rodeo Kings have not sold as many albums as the Dixie Chicks is a mystery to us; they are equally talented composers with three pairs of attuned ears to vet a hook and a chorus. Perhaps the fluid, on again off again nature of the band has held them back. One step up and two steps back, jagged momentum is impossible to sustain.

The evening provided two pieces of fabulous news. ‘Kings and Kings’ a new album spotlighting guest artists including Jason Isbell and Nick Lowe – an all-time hero of mine – is due later this month. It will make a stellar companion to ‘Kings and Queens’ which includes songs sung along with artists such as Emmylou Harris, Rosanne Cash, Patti Scialfa, Exene Cervenka, Amy Helm and Lucinda Williams. If the idea of any of this music intrigues you, may I also suggest ‘South,’ the latest Blackie and the Rodeo Kings release to date. And from the stage, a promise to return to Alberta next March with a full band and a coterie of special guests.

The bad news for Ann and me is that we’ve booked a Hawaiian vacation commencing at the end of March. The tragic fallout is that I will spend the rest of autumn and all of winter fretting over potentially conflicting dates. And we didn’t buy travel cancellation insurance.

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