Black(ie) and (the) Blue(s)
If you live outside of Canada, chances are that you’ve probably never heard of Colin Linden. This is despite the fact that the Canadian-born artist has established himself as an ace producer in Nashville, twiddling the knobs on more than 100 albums for the likes of the Band, Bruce Cockburn, Colin James, Sue Foley and Stephen Fearing, among others. As a performer, he’s a noted guitar sideman who has worked with Emmylou Harris and Robert Plant. On top of that, he’s a gifted solo artist on his own – though he’s probably best known in his home country of Canada as being a member of the folk festival perennial favourites Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, a folk-roots supergroup that also consists of Fearing and Tom Wilson.
Clearly, Linden is a guy who doesn’t exactly covet the limelight, but he’s quite the talent on his own musically, a fact that takes centre stage on his recent live album, Still Live – which is a bit of a cheeky title considering that his very first album in 1980 was titled Colin Linden Live. Recorded on October 29, 2010, at the Douglas Corner Cafe in Nashville, Still Live sees Linden performing a nearly perfect set to a politely receptive audience of perhaps no more than a couple dozen people, based on the sparse crowd applause sprinkled at the end of each performance. Clearly, when Linden espouses, “thank you so much, thank you for being here,” at the end of “Smoke ‘Em All” in this set, he’s being sincere. There’s so few people appreciating this gifted artist’s work, you have to imagine that it’s a bit of a crime that Linden isn’t more known in America, particularly in his new home of Nashville.
Still Live is a largely superlative document that proves that the blues and Canada are not mutually exclusive. Throughout these 12 tracks (11 were recorded live, with “John Lennon in New Orleans” recorded during rehearsal prior to the concert offered here; 11 are Colin Linden originals, with Willie Dixon’s “Who’s Been Talking?” the lone cover) Linden proves that he is a commanding presence on stage, sparse audiences be damned. He is noted for being an expressive slide guitarist, and you’ll find nimble examples of his prowess here. From the ragged down and dirty “From the Water” to the strut of “Big Mouth”, Linden expressively proves that he can hold his own with just about anyone in the blues field. Still Live is choc-a-bloc with towering song after towering song, showing that Linden is not just a passing fancy. He’s the real deal. Coupled with his gruff, rough bark of a voice, it’s hard to imagine that this performer calls the Great White North his home turf. Still, there are rough patches to be found on Still Live that show Linden is human. “Big Mouth”, the opening cut, is a bit of a slippery, blistering number where Linden and his backing band almost let the song slide away on them like a fish that nearly got away. And yet, because of this, the song is a revelation to hear, compelling on the fuel of energy that Linden and his players – which include John Dymond on bass, Gary Craig on drums and R&B organist Spooner Oldham – bring to the table.
There are a clutch of great tracks to be found on Still Live. I read an online review somewhere that describes Linden’s performance on “Between the Darkness and the Light of Day” as being reminiscent of Elvis Costello, and I’d say that comparison is bang right on, particularly if you’re drawing lines to Costello’s output somewhere around King of America and Blood and Chocolate. It’s a bracingly rocking number that sticks with you and leaves a brand deep on your subconscious. “Dark Night of Soul”, which just features Linden and his acoustic guitar, is a deeply moving solo piece that lets him shine. But, overall, it’s his take on “Sugar Mine” that is the most memorable among memorable cuts to be found here. It’s opening lines simply are glued to you in all of its sweet intentions: “I dream about sugar falling down like snow / Rolling down the hills to the valley below / Filling up the streets and covering up the signs / Turning this town to a sugar mine.”
Overall, Still Live is a sterling document for anyone who loves rock, country and (especially) the blues. It’s a joy to hear Linden enjoy himself so fully in front of such a tiny audience, and the recording is generally crisp and clear and lets the artist simply unfurl at his own pace. If there’s any minor quibble to be found with Still Live is that the performance doesn’t appear to be sequenced in proper concert order. It would have been nice to have this document unspool as naturally as Linden uncovered these songs on stage. Still, that minor issue aside, Still Live is a commanding album of bluesy material that is, at times, quite soulful in its rendering. Linden may be best known in the States as a producer along the likes of a T-Bone Burnett – indeed, he played on the soundtrack for O Brother, Where Art Thou? – but this document should show that he deserves much more than sideman or production chair status.
Still Live is a largely stunning album that shows that white Canadian bluesmen can certainly hold their own against the originators of the sound. If anything, Still Live shows that Linden commands a great deal of passion, particularly on the scorching slow numbers, and that he should be a bigger name in Americana circles than he currently is. Linden is certainly that rarity: a triple-threat. He can produce your albums, he can play on them and, as this set shows, he’s perfectly comfortable playing any arrangement in front of a live audience with a great deal of heft and weight. Still Live shows that, more than 30 years after his first live album, Linden still has it, whatever that intangible “it” may be.