The King is Gone
Big Tobacco and the Pickers
Reviewed by Bruce Macpherson
Nobody plays music to get rich. A couple of years ago, a musician friend told me, "When I started to play music full-time in 1975, a hundred-dollar gig in Toronto was a good one. The problem is, it still is." Playing music is no way to a snug life in the leather-lined interior of a BMW. And it's even tougher for country musicians, too many of whom have been driven into the smarmy embrace of drum machines and computerized New Country.
But unlike some others, pure passion for the music propels Big Tobacco and the Pickers. Bar room economics means that smaller bands can pay each musician more money. But Big Tobacco is a 6- piece band, each member of which makes a unique contribution to its authentic country sound. The band is fronted by Jamie Oliver, who started the group with fellow Sudbury native and guitar shredder extraordinaire, Jason Blanchard. The other members are Jay Mallany on vocals and electric bass, Anne Werbitsky on dobro and pedal steel guitars, Blaine McKenzie on honky-tonk piano, and Derek Simpson on drums and percussion. Rest assured, nobody in this band has given up their day job.
What they're after is a classic country take on their own material, and they succeed brilliantly on their new release, The King is Gone. Most of the tunes are originals, and they cross the whole country spectrum, from Bluegrass gospel, through trucker tunes to outlaw country rockers. The new album is produced by legendary Canadian producer, Moe Berg, and includes guest appearances by a raft of excellent local session players, including banjo player Daniel Simmons, Burke Carroll on harmony steel guitar with Big Tobacco regular Anne Werbitsky, and Raha Javanfar, from the excellent Western swing enterprise, the Double Cuts, on fiddle. A choir of equally-talented vocalists including Samantha Martin & Delta Sugar, Steve Ketchen (of the Kensington Hillbillies) and producer Moe Berg help out with harmonies. A standout is the Jamie Oliver original, "I Knew You Were Mine," a classic harmony duo with Jamie and Angie Hilts (who, along with Jamie, co-fronts the Double Cuts). Truth to tell, there really isn't a weak tune anywhere to be found on this project.
On its first album, the band included an ironically self-effacing bar room rocker, entitled, "The Drunker You Get (The Better We Sound oooo-eee)." That sentiment was never true, but if you really want to appreciate Big Tobacco and the Pickers, you should catch them live. If you know the music scene in this city, you may already have seen them, since they play a regular monthly gig at the Cameron House, and make frequent appearances at the Dakota Tavern, the inestimable Cadillac Lounge and elsewhere around town. More and more often, weekends find them touring around Ontario, and even south of the border. And each time I hear them, they sound a little more self-assured. Don't miss The King is Gone.
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