Just Like Family – Stampeders

Imagine yourself at a family barbecue, where everyone’s been fed and the drinks are plenty, as three of the family’s more colourful members–the eccentrics that everyone loves, but aren’t quite sure what to make of–pick up some music instruments and begin to play, cheered on overwhelmingly by everyone attending and you’ll have a sense of a Stampeders show.

Enter Rich Dodson, wearing a billowy flowered shirt with guitar strapped over his large body, sunglasses adding to the mystique. Ronnie King, dressed in black with his bass in hand as he sits on a chair set on a small riser due to a recent surgery; “Tonight we sit and rock,” with a fist salute to the audience. And last, but not least, Kim Berly, looking casually dapper in a dark paisley shirt as he settles behind the drum kit. The audience cheers loudly, as families do at large events. Berly calmly announces, “It’s the same bunch,” for anyone who might not recognize these characters who might have just entered off the casino floor.

There’s a little hesitation to the first song as King has to get comfortable with the chair, being a strange orientation for him–it’s apparent he’d much rather be standing to perform–but once adjusted they launch into “Devil You” with Dodson’s voice clean and clear, though perhaps not as strong as one might like and the show is off to a fine start.

At the end of the song, King proclaims, “It’s no fun getting old, but we can still rock.” Many bald and silver heads in the crowd nod vigorously in agreement. After a few breaths “Sure Beats Working” lights up as the band alternates lead vocals, trading on those sweet harmonies that they’re known for as Dodson shimmies and shakes like a man possessed, ready to speak in tongues, but instead channeling the energy into his playing. Though never acknowledged as musical technicians, they can be respected for their precision and focus. Each one rarely looks at his instrument, but plays with fluid accuracy. The band is smooth as silk and the timing changes are perfect, played by veterans who want to have fun and entertain in the process. What do aging rockers have to prove anyway, except that they can still work a little magic?

Deerfoot Casino, Calgary | April 20, 2013
Photography by: Charles Hope

Given that the general age of the audience isn’t too far behind the bands ages, the many references to aging and lost virility are well accepted. When Berly comments that King was quite the lady’s man in the old days, he softly pauses and adds with a broad smile, “not so much anymore.” These are old friends who love to play and love to tease each other along the way.

As the soulful “Minstrel Gypsy” is performed, and then “Carry Me,” their first single all those years ago, it becomes apparent that this is a night of emotion and memory, with a few laughs tossed in for affect. Audience members cheer, but mostly they softly sing along, drawn down their own memory lanes, lost in the atmosphere of wonderfully melodic songs that marked their lives.

Stampeders weren’t a band of rebellion, but one of chronicling, where the songs were gentle narratives of life in a strangely changing world; attempting to make a little sense of all that upheaval. Balladeers of a rising Canadian musical landscape with enough of an edge to be called a rock band and maintain their country roots, but with the sensibilities of troubadours creating those pristine harmonies that were evident tonight. And always with a glint in their eyes, as illustrated by Berly as he slowly unbuttons his shirt “Little by little,” his smile warm, mischievous, and a little flirtatious all at the same time; being that funny relative that you always want to be around no matter what.

Fueled by the Zen communion with their new found family, the band smoothly runs through the gamut of their hits including “Hometown Boy,” “Marigold,” and “Ramona.” “Hit the Road Jack,” though a Ray Charles tune has the crowd clapping and singing joyously with the band. A woman throws what appears to be a purple bra on the stage to the band’s mutual amusement. After the song no one responds, but one wonders if a response was to come later that night…

“Sweet City Woman” receives a warm response even though it was probably heard hundreds of times last year since it was the theme song for the Calgary 2012 celebrations as the cultural capital of Canada. People are up and dancing and singing and genuinely enjoying the song that made the Stampeders an international success.

During ”Wild Eyes” Berly breaks into a short drum solo, showing he is as capable behind the kit as he is singing, especially when crooning “Oh My Lady.” “Ramona” brings loud cheers with its jangly guitar and driving bass. They end the night with “New Orleans” and the crowd singing loudly to that oft-covered tune, packing away those earlier memories and living completely in the moment.

Though the Stampeders have been around since 1965 and the members are showing their age, their enthusiasm is unbound; here are three musicians who enjoy playing as much as they enjoy their audience’s reactions–that’s entertainment we’d all like to see at any event. And what could be better than that.

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