Reggae Cowboys have all the trappings of a novelty act: Canadians in cowboy hats doing the reggae thing in songs about the Wild Wild West. It sounds a bit like Dread Zeppelin crossed with the Village People, if a little more original.
But as you’ll see when they ride into town for a return engagement this week at RIBCO, the Reggae Cowboys are far greater than the sum of their affectations. With an easy pop style and subtle, supple guitars, the Toronto-based Cowboys adeptly juggle everything from a soulful cover of Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” to a version of Marley’s “Redemption Song” that would feel at home in Mark Knopfler’s hands to grooving originals with just the right taste of reggae. The band uses reggae as a tool but not a crutch; it mingles freely with jazzy guitars, spaghetti-western rock, and pop structures and sounds.
The band’s second album, Rock Steady Rodeo, is a lovely, even-tempered, and often delicate set of songs that goes a long way toward waking reggae from a stylistic coma. It’s not often you run across a record that has all the same sounds you’ve come to expect but has a fresh feel, but this is that rarity. Relaxed and warm, simple without being dull or repetitive, clever, fun, and playful while casually earnest, Rock Steady Rodeo is a remarkably accomplished work.
This quintet is led by singer, guitarist, chief songwriter, and producer Bird Bellony (under the name “Stone Ranger”), and the band’s strengths flow from him. He’s a versatile, strong guitarist with a soothing voice and an ear for songcraft. It would be easy to write off the rest of the band as superfluous, but Bellony doesn’t allow it, blending into the group’s easy sound.
If there’s a potential downside to the band, it’s the educational tone. The Reggae Cowboys are on a mission, it seems, to teach the world about the Old West, from the story of Geronimo to the prominent role of African Americans in cowboy culture. But the messages are delivered with such silkiness that it doesn’t feel like preaching. And while this horse might get tired over the course of a career, for the duration of a record it finishes as strong as it starts.
It helps, too, that Bellony mixes things up well. The ode to the Native American in “Geronimo” is balanced with the wonderfully rhythmic chatter of “Road Show”: “Come hippity-hippity-hippity-hippity-hop / Rickety-rickety-rickety-rickety-rock / Clippity-clippity-clippity-clippity-clop / It don’t stop.” It might read stupid – and reggae’s not meant to be read – but it’s really quite beautiful.
History isn’t the band’s only concern. “Because of the Gun” makes an interesting case that America’s current fascination with firearms is in some ways a function of the culture’s unthinking glorification of Western lore: “Come let me tell you ‘bout the story of the gun / Them claim say that’s how the West was won / Settlers came with pistols and shotguns / And so our troubles begun / From hand cannon to M-1.” It’s not the stuff of persuasive political discourse, but it’s more than you’ll normally get from pop music. Obvious subjects are infused with such nice wordwork that they’re easy to forgive, as on “All That Drinkin’”: “He’s drowning, he’s right on the brink / Can’t handle liquor but he sure loves to drink.”
It’s easy for reggae bands to get into a groove and let it carry them through weaker material, but one of the amazing things about Rock Steady Rodeo is that it is what it claims to be: rock steady from track one to 13, without a weak link.
Reggae Cowboys play RIBCO on Thursday, November 30, at 10 p.m. Cover is $3.